Overview: A group of friends from the dangerous streets of Compton reach rap superstardom in the 1980s-90s. Universal Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 147 Minutes.
Tell’em Where You From: There’s an early scene in Straight Outta Compton in which Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), the street-smart drug dealer-turned-businessman behind N.W.A and Ruthless Records, meets with music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who promises to leverage his insider connections to attain big things for the young men in N.W.A. When Heller informs Eazy that he’s heard the group’s record, he does so by describing the music as “good.” Eazy-E gives a curious look. “Good?,” he asks, before standing to leave. This sparks a desperate second plea from Heller, who encourages Eazy to drop the bravado and chest-puffing machismo. Heller’s appeal is enough to convince Eazy to sit, but the request to deflate his arrogance is quickly dismissed. The exchange is almost throwaway. A casual observation makes it feel placed for comedic effect, but it’s also vital to understanding the real art of N.W.A. Because that personality isn’t something that Eazy can drop; it’s not part of the bit, it’s pivotal to the art.
Believe I’m Stomping: The lyrical content and public-facing image performance of the street-perspective reality rap pioneered by N.W.A carries with it a handful of trademarks: 1.) the obsessive fixation on the material markers of success exaggerated from the white middle class-provided definition 2.) embellished narratives of criminal backgrounds, inner-industry beef, and combatant histories with oppressive police forces, and 3.) the overstatement of reckless, misogynistic, and masculine self-assurance. When I read last week that Straight Outta Compton Director F. Gary Gray’s past credits included some of the group’s later music videos, I was admittedly worried about the possibility of his film being another polished and adoring bio-pic. It is not that. Gray’s rather exceptional movie is at its most brilliant when exploring the volatile edges where art and artifice meet reality. What happens when young, manipulable men are introduced to an industry willing to provide them the wealth necessary to attain their fabled lifestyles of excess with the expectation that they practice what they preach? How can the artist manage an ego in an artistic landscape that demands constant assertion of superiority? What happens when the dangerous home-ground spills into the successful existence? And, most importantly, what is the logical conclusion to a cycle in which provocative art stimulates further aggression from the oppressive social institution that served as the catalyst to the artistic rebellion? Gray provides an earnest attempt to answer these questions by exploring the violent and dangerous personal, inter-personal, and cultural conflict brought about by the music of N.W.A. The exploration is, at times, so heartbreaking and unnerving that it functions as a cautionary tale far more effective than anything offered from an album-crushing, Bush-voting champion of Reagan’s whitewashed 1980s status quo.
A Murder Rap to Keep You Dancing: That isn’t to say that Gray’s treatment of N.W.A’s body of work as narrative and cultural artifact devalues the music. Quite the opposite. Straight Outta Compton is an electrifying musical, as infecting and inspired as any other musical comprised of safer and more universally palatable genre tunes. The energy of the music fuels the rest of the movie, and the middle stretch (particularly around the Detroit concert rebellion and riot) presents filmmaking that’s more alive and applause-worthy than anything on this side of Fury Road.
But When I Come Back Boy: In the end, there’s a sense that Gray loses just a bit of his grip on balancing the countless conflicts and patches the slip-up with melodrama. Maybe the script from Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman shoehorns in one or two too many mid-90s rap personalities for no measurable reason and exerts itself trying to cleanly compartmentalize the separate geniuses of group members Eazy-E, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., the rapper’s real-life son), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). But if I allow myself these three very minor negative observations, then I am, well, straight outta criticisms. With few deviations, this is Grade-A filmmaking. It is emotional, entertaining, and hilarious in all the right places, and neither distinction suffers to any of the others. Consider that I think Paul Giamatti is consistently the best performance in any film he’s in. In Straight Outta Compton, Giamatti is the the fourth most impressive, at best.
Overall: Straight Outta Compton is better than any recent Awards-contending biopic. On an even playing field, a wave of Oscar buzz would start this weekend and carry to multiple nominations, particularly for the performances of Mitchell and Hawkins.