"Straight Outta Compton" Pulses With Passion, Power

Here’s a lil gangsta, short in size
A t-shirt and Levi’s is his only disguise
Built like a tank yet hard to hit
Ice Cube and Eazy-E cold runnin shit

This four bar blast in the middle of N.W.A.’s “Gangsta Gangsta” might seem like a throwaway. It’s Cube passing the mic to Eazy, who immediately launches into a flurry of profanity, with Dr. Dre weaving it all together by way of bouncy interpolations from a bevy of dusted off funk hits and one massive kick drum.

It’s also a microcosm of everything that made the group’s 5-year run so momentous: breathtaking bravado, fierce self-awareness, and striking imagery, all marking a determination to be hip-hop’s master provocateurs. Their lyrics weren’t just vulgar. They were frequently misogynistic, homophobic, and even racist, taking a battering ram to the boundaries of good taste.

But in the case of N.W.A., as in life, context is everything.

Director F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” – named after N.W.A.’s first LP – is not the gospel truth. It was financed by its several of its subjects, making for a predictably lenient depiction of six men who partook in some of the gross behavior they rapped about. (Most notably, the movie does not address Dr. Dre’s notorious 1991 assault on DJ Dee Barnes.)

What “Straight Outta Compton” is, though, is an iridescent, monstrously entertaining musical biopic that mostly eschews cliché in favor of serious audiovisual pomp and a few of the year’s best performances. And even though it shies away from controversy, it sheds plenty of light on what molded N.W.A.

Compton, California. 1986. 23 year-old amateur dope slinger Eric “Eazy-E” Wright barely escapes a doomed drug deal. Teenager O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson writes raps on his school bus, hardly batting an eye when a gun-toting gangbanger commandeers it. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young listens to records in his room, so caught up in his DJ daydreams that he misses a job interview ordained by his mother.

They might not know it yet, but all three have become sponges, soaking up every last drop of their surroundings: funk records, police brutality, violence on their TVs, violence across the street, governmental caterwauling over “extreme” music (spearheaded by Tipper Gore’s “Parents Music Resource Center”), and – most importantly – hip-hop going mainstream.

Yet, apart from fringe acts, rap hadn’t yet reflected the realities of life as a young black man, setting the stage for a few ambitious souls. The abovementioned trio would jump on that opportunity, teaming up with a few other likeminded Comptonites to form N.W.A. and take the hip-hop world by storm.

That F. Gary Gray’s film is so vibrant is not just a function of an innately compelling story – its mix of burgeoning and fracturing friendships is an ideal basis for drama – but that it fires on so many cylinders. Firstly, the combination of rich production values and Matthew’s Libatique’s cinematography is irresistible, its attention to detail and period often eye-popping.

Secondly, the writers (Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman ) and editors (Billy Fox and Michael Tronick) are uniquely in sync here, especially in the pic’s first half. It’s perfectly paced and rarely stoops to formula, balancing concert scenes with character development almost effortlessly. And it’s impressively aware of which of its scenes are showstoppers, giving them the necessary room to breathe. There are many.

But above all else, the cast is dynamite.

Relative newcomer Jason Mitchell is the ideal mix of cocky and sensitive as Eazy-E, equal parts bark and bite until life deals him an inimitably tough hand. He’s the center of the film and he carries it like a pro.

Corey Hawkins (“Non-Stop”) makes a fine Dre, giving surprising depth to the hardened, defiant hip-hop icon we know today. Seeing a young Dre reluctantly don a lavender satin jacket to perform in a dance club is funny and humanizing, and Hawkins makes this Muppet Babies version of future hard-boiled gangsta rapper Dr. Dre pretty relatable.

Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) is obviously comfortable as the group’s manager Jerry Heller, keeping the character likable even as he goes full sleazeball.

But it’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s historic turn as his father that’s most impactful.

There’s no rulebook for actors playing their fathers because it just doesn’t happen. Cynics might cry nepotism, but their calls would be counterproductive. If anything the performance is an argument for nepotism.

O’Shea isn’t just his dad’s spitting image. His presence amps up the authenticity of many of the film’s best scenes and he occasionally makes for a better Ice Cube than Ice Cube, oozing brash charisma. His talent for channeling his father is uncanny, and watching him drop diss track “No Vaseline” on his ex-running mates is liable to make viewers feel like they’re actually in the room watching the controversial track being minted.

“Straight Outta Compton” isn’t perfect. At 150 minutes, it’s too long. It does flag in its second half. It shorts some of its supporting characters (MC Ren, DJ Yella, Suge Knight, all of its female characters). The contractual issues that dot the second half of the story are dry and the void of concert scenes hurts. And some fascinating hip-hop icons are limited to cameos (Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur).

But what it does right, it does fantastically well. This is no backlot biopic, no VH1 movie of the week. It’s an over-ambitious pop culture spread that should please hip-hop history buffs and absolutely delight those with a healthy distaste for authority. It’s even more successful as a reflection of its fascinating, flawed subjects. It might be a more favorable documentation than the men of N.W.A. deserve, but it’s just the ode that N.W.A., artists, have earned.

In other words, “Damn, that shit was dope.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 14, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: F. Gary Gary
Screenwriter: Andrea Berloff, Jonathan Herman
Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R Marcos Taylor
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use)