'Straight Outta Compton'
The story of N.W.A is so insane, operatic, inspiring and horrifying that it was pretty much guaranteed to be the stuff of stirring cinema someday. Well, that day is here thanks to ‘Straight Outta Compton’, a grand, colorful, 150-minute tale of a few angry kids with big talent.
When the movie is at its best (as in, say, the first 70 minutes or so), it’s a pretty excellent and socially relevant story. When the movie is at its worst (like most of the last 70 minutes), it struggles to contain its ambitions, focuses too much on contract disputes, and glosses over all the least flattering elements of the true story for the benefit of the surviving and most famous members of the group (who also just happen to be producers). Ah well, at least the good outweighs the bad.
Things kick off with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) getting caught up in a drug deal gone wrong that leads to riot gear, angry dogs and a destroyed living room. With that, the tone is set and we get the usual “Get to know ya” setup to a music bio-pic. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is the musical genius with the beats and the brains and the vision to create a whole new type of music. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – Cube’s eldest son) is the angry young genius who writes the words and delivers the attitude. Eazy-E bankrolls them with his drug money and keeps it real. There are other NWA members, but don’t worry about hearing much from them. There’s simply not enough screen time to go around, so they just dip in and out of the background much like the Snoop and Tupac lookalikes who pop up for a few seconds.
The band forms from something real and honest, but producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti and the worst wig of his career) sees real money and brings them to the masses. As they record the first N.W.A record, the discrimination the men face from police and much of society feels visceral and the music is a natural expression of their frustration. As they tour, fame and success comes hand-in-hand with arrests and FBI threats.
It’s pretty powerful stuff that’s quite well executed by director F. Gary Gray (the man behind ‘Friday’ doing his best Scorsese impression here) and an immensely talented cast. Then the usual rifts form in the group in the usual ego-driven ways, and the movie gradually falls apart. It has many high points from then on, however. The way R. Marcos Taylor emerges as friend-turned-monster Suge Knight is handled fairly well. The montage of beef-tracks between the group as solo artists makes for a damn fun sequence, and the way N.W.A’s music and the issues they raise factor into the Rodney King incident and subsequent L.A. riot is sensitively and powerfully presented.
The problem with ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is ultimately that the filmmakers have too much story to tell for a single feature, and co-producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre try to keep things a little clean. It’s sad to see the movie devolve into tedious arguments about contracts (well, aside from Ice Cube’s baseball bat negotiation scene). Likewise, the decision to use Eazy-E’s death as a structural hanging point in the third act might have been good for narrative economy, but also leads the film into music bio-pic clichés straight outta ‘Walk Hard’. Many of the darker beats in Dre’s later life are ignored to make him seem like a good guy poisoned by Suge’s presence, and Ice Cube essentially disappears from the story at a certain point since he was off in another world.
There are rumors that the first cut of the movie weighed in at a hefty 3.5 hours, so perhaps a lot of the missing material was there at one point. (It’s hard to believe that the infamous tale of Suge Knight dangling Vanilla Ice off a balcony to blackmail some cash to fund Death Row Records wasn’t at least considered for inclusion.) It certainly feels like the back half of the movie was chopped to bits with obvious ADR redubbing desperately trying to condense and connect scenes. The last 40 minutes or so of the movie feel pretty darn awkward in ways that clearly weren’t intentional.
Still, as frustrating as it is that certain material was glossed over and as irritating as it can be to see paint-by-numbers clichéd writing drag things down, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ has an undeniable power and significant entertainment value. After all, this is a pretty fascinating story that comes laced with bitter commentary on police brutality that’s quite possibly even more relevant today.
This is probably the best this movie could be while trying to tell the entire labyrinthine tale of N.W.A with the involvement of surviving members who come to the movie with their own point of view and understandable interest in looking good. There’s a chance that in a few decades this tale will be spun in a more honest and efficient way, but even if not, a pretty damn good N.W.A movie exists and that’s sure as shit something that most people around in the 1990s never imagined possible. That’s gotta count for something, right?