The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Movie with Attitude

Universal Pictures
 147 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: F. Gary Gray 
Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
Straight Outta Compton

Most genre movies have conventions, and movies about musicians, especially biographical movies about musicians, all seem to have certain elements in common. You can almost guarantee that by the end of the movie you will see most or all of the following: troubles with the law, drinking and/or drug troubles, troubles with the opposite sex, money troubles, troubles with business partners or managers, mental troubles, health troubles, troubles gaining acceptance in the music world, and just plain troubles.


Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s biography about the hip hop group N.W.A. and its three best known performers has all those troubles and more. But, although many of the scenes are familiar (and in one case eerily so, as Paul Giamatti, playing the group’s manager has a similar role to the one he played in Love and Mercy), Gray makes the film feel fresh at all times. Plus, the early part of the movie, showcasing the group’s rise, doesn’t shy away from showing the hard edge of life in Compton, in which violence and the possibility of death or arrest was always present.


For those unfamiliar (as I was to a certain extent), N.W.A. was perhaps the most influential hip hop group of all time, even though the three main members of the group were together for less than two years and whose work largely consisted of one groundbreaking album. The talents of Ice Cube (played by his real son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. in the film), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) meshed perfectly. The group started on a shoestring, financed in large part by the money Eazy-E made from helping deal drugs, which helped him start a garage record label, but their songs, including “F___ the Police,” struck a chord with young audiences around the country, few of whom actually had the experiences with the law that the N.W.A. members had. But their audiences recognized the honesty in the music and responded. For many groups, gangsta rap is nothing more than a slick marketing gimmick, but for N.W.A., it was real.


Although Eazy-E had some business savvy from his entrepreneurial experience both within and without the law, the group needed a manager, and wound up with Jerry Heller (Giamatti), who recognized their talent and was shrewd enough to know how to package it. But even Heller was unprepared for the actual life of the group members, as evidenced in one scene in which local police roust the musicians, who had gone outside the recording studio for a few minutes. A shocked Heller couldn’t believe the police had the musicians spread-eagled on the ground essentially for the “crime” of looking suspiciously black in a white neighborhood.


While Heller may have helped the group become profitable, his largesse didn’t seem to extend past Eazy-E. Even those unfamiliar with the N.W.A. story can guess what’s going to happen after Heller keeps assuring Ice Cube that all the money issues are being taken care of. Indeed, Ice Cube’s inability to get what he felt was his fair share of the group’s earnings led to his departure. Later, Dr. Dre had similar issues and also parted ways with Eazy-E, although in his case, he had a rather unsavory business partner of his own, Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) to help “negotiate” his severance pay.


Once Ice Cube decides to leave the group, Straight Outta Compton becomes much more conventional but remains as interesting as before. In large part, this is due to the acting performances. Jackson looks, sounds, and acts uncannily like his father, and both Hawkins and Mitchell are solid as well. The real acting find is Taylor, a former stuntman, who makes Suge Knight an extremely menacing presence. Director Gray sensationalizes some of the scenes involving Knight to make him appear as dangerous as possible.


It’s worth nothing that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre served as consultants on Straight Outta Compton, and the movie was made with the cooperation of Eazy-E’s widow as well. In addition, director Gray is an old friend of both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. So, the movie doesn’t pretend to be objective. The three principals are portrayed quite favorably, even when feuding, while others like Knight, Heller, and various police and reporters do not fare nearly as well. Nor does the movie discuss some of the less savory aspects of the protagonists’ character, such as Dr. Dre’s sometimes violent relationships with women. Straight Outta Compton is drama, not documentary.


Objective or not, the concert scenes, especially the infamous Detroit performance that became a near riot, have a raw power to them that perfectly captures the group’s charisma and street cred. This wasn’t a staged movie “concert” with ersatz enthusiasm. When Ice Cube starts out “Yo Dre, I got something to say,” the feeling in the movie theater where I was watching was electric.


As a drama, almost every scene in Compton is effective. However, director Gray sacrifices subtlety in favor of big emotional payoffs. The second half of the film thus feels episodic rather than the more comprehensive, nuanced portrayals that the better biographies manage. Even at two and a half hours long, the movie may leave some viewers thinking they really haven’t gotten a handle on who these musicians really are. Certainly, Gray could have cut back some on the montage party scenes, featuring copious amounts of drug consumption and scantily clad female flesh, and not harmed the dramatic integrity of the film.


Director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. By that measure, and by my own standards, Straight Outta Compton is a very good movie indeed. I can’t remember a single bad scene, even the superfluous, overlong party scenes. The film has a few too many gaps to be really great, and we never really get a handle on “who” the main three really were. But the movie accomplishes what I think was its major goal: to explain the “how” and the “why.” While there’s plenty of room for criticism of N.W.A., their legitimacy and motivation can’t be questioned. Similarly, while there’s room to criticize some of Gray’s directorial choices, the overall quality of Straight Outta Compton, and the emotion that went into it, can’t be questioned either.

Read other reviews of Straight Outta Compton:


Straight Outta Compton (2015) on IMDb