Friday, August 14, 2015


From Johnny Cash to Buddy Holly to Dewey Cox, musician's stories in cinema tend to fall into a standard template of rise, fall, rise again…with only the names and the music changing shape. In the case of the first biopic concerning rap music’s most seminal group, NWA, their story in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON gives the tired old template a new spin. 

Five young men; Ice Cube (O’shea Jackson, Jr., son of the real-life Ice Cube), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) emerge from the dangerous streets of Compton, California to form the rap group NWA…and bring to the masses music which reflects their upbringings and rebels against authority. 

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a film which is set into two distinct parts. The first part traces the group’s early days on the dangerous streets where the cops are just as dangerous as the criminals and there’s a one-in-three chance of making it out alive…and their meteoric rise to the top of the hip-hop mountain. Director F. Gary Gray does great work in carving out the backstories of his characters and bringing their past experiences into their music. It’s a true case of art imitating life, and COMPTON excels at it. The film is made even stronger as NWA finds themselves up against record industries and angry policeman, and it becomes an us-against-the-world story which is fully engaging. 

The second half deals with NWA’s eventual breakup and war-with-words against each other as they hurl insults in the press and in their music. This second half is not as strong as the first, as it’s tough to find empathy for a bunch of rich guys acting like assholes to each other. The eventual finale makes all the bickering and in-fighting worthwhile, as a tragedy towards the end brings about an emotional gut-punch which is unexpected. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON doesn’t quite rise, fall, and rise again because they really don’t ever rise again; at least not in the traditional sense for a musical biopic. Just like the music, COMPTON sticks very close to reality. 

Director F. Gary Gray doesn’t get very deep with his characters, but he doesn’t really need to. In every music act there seems to be the brain, the brawn, and the loose cannon…and Gray plays with these archetypes perfectly. The script is strong as it zeroes in on the way these characters act and react with another. The film isn’t quite a character piece, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Humor is well-timed and the editing of real-life news footage is superb. 

Acting is a bit of a mixed bag. The highlight reel belongs mostly to O’shea Jackson, Jr., who as the real-life son of the character he’s playing…is a dead ringer for his father not only in looks but in mannerisms and voice; it’s tough to remember exactly who we’re looking at. Corey Hawkins is also a dead-ringer for Dr. Dre, but the most and best work goes to Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, who goes through the most emotional turmoil. Paul Giamatti, as the group’s manager, turns in great work as always. 

One of the best parts about STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is love or hate the music of NWA, there is a lot to enjoy and admire. A pre-existing knowledge is not required for viewing, and it’s almost welcomed as the many twists and turns are great cinematic surprises and an overwhelming satisfying experience. It isn’t until the film is nearly over when the obvious influence the now-defunct group had then and now, making this an important story to be told. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is as relevant as it is powerful.


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