Galvanizing the audiences with a bunch of propulsive songs from a famous hip hop group during the 1980-90s, “Straight Outta Compton” is a vivid, pulsating music biographical film to watch. Like their music and attitude in public, the movie is uncomfortable at times for good reasons, but its riveting music performance scenes will definitely grip you with their straightforward fury and gusto.
The first act of the movie revolves around the formation of N.W.A. (it is the abbreviation of “N*ggaz wit Attitudes”) in Compton, California during the late 1980s. Right from its opening scene, the movie puts us into the tough neighbourhood in Compton, and some of the following scenes reminded me of what I saw from John Singleton’s unforgettable film “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and Allen and Albert Hughes’ equally powerful movie “Menace II Society” (1993). Even if they are not related to any local gang organization, many young African American people in this poor neighbourhood can be suddenly cornered by thugs or brutally treated by police officers at any moment, and several harsh moments in the film particularly resonate with the recent media reports on race issue and police brutality in US.
While working as the DJ at a local club owned by Alonzo Williams (Corey Reynolds), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) considers organizing his own hip hop group, and he persuades his drug dealer friend Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) to finance his personal project while recruiting O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is, yes, Ice Cube’s son), Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.) and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge). During the production of their first single “Boyz-n-the-Hood”, Eazy-E finds himself wearing more than one hat as coincidentally getting himself placed in the front position, and he and the other group members soon get the first taste of success when their song turns out to be a breakout hit.
Their growing popularity happens to draw the attention of veteran music manager Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti with a white hairpiece which is a little less awkward than that distracting one he recently wore as the music manager in another music biographical film “Love & Mercy” (2014). Although he is not entirely reliable, Heller does deliver what he promised to the boys, and N.W.A. quickly attains the fame on the nationwide level after the release of their first album “Straight Outta Compton”. Drenched in expletives and blatant expressions of crime and violence, their songs naturally get a fair share of critics and haters, and the police and other law authorities are surely not very pleased about that infamous song “F*ck the Police”.
Heller is nervous about this trouble as their manager, but the N.W.A. members see that the controversy surrounding them can actually help public promotion (an old lesson: if you try to ban or censor something, you will only draw more attention to it). During their concert held at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, they give a big middle finger to the Detroit Police even though they were warned in advance, and that rebellious act results in a night to be remembered by everyone in the arena.
Meanwhile, cracks begin to appear in the relationships among the group members. Dissatisfied with his less rewarding position, Ice Cube eventually decides to leave N.W.A. and go solo, and that leads to a serious conflict between him and the other N.W.A. members. While Eazy-E sees no problem in staying with Heller, Dr. Dre also wants to develop his own independent career like Ice Cube, so he asks for some help from Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), an imposing ex-bodyguard who recently begins his music business career. Knight has already signed Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry (Marlon Yates Jr.) as one of his first clients, and Dr. Dre sees from him an opportunity for easy exit.
But it turns out to be pretty much like enlisting a big tiger for chasing away a little fox, and Dr. Dre belatedly realizes that he gets stuck with someone more problematic than Heller. Exuding the unnerving aura of a tempestuous thug, R. Marcos Taylor is frighteningly convincing as an intimating juggernaut you cannot mess with. Compared to Knight, the N.W.A. members and other notable rappers appearing in the film relatively look like boy scouts, and you will not be surprised about Knight’s recent legal trouble early in this year, which will probably be the last chapter of his long history of notoriety.
Although the running time of the movie is more than 2 hours, the director F. Gary Gray keeps things floated along with its electrifying soundtrack, and the result is entertaining enough to compensate for the weaknesses of the screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, which is based on the story written by Berloff and his co-writers S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus. I must point out that most of the female characters in the film are poorly developed, and they are merely defined as 1) mothers or lovers to stand around their boys or 2) objects to be utilized for sex or any other hedonistic fun to pursue. Before watching the film, I happened to read Dee Barnes’s sobering article “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up”, and I felt very uneasy during a few moments in the film depicting the male characters’ crass treatments of women (Shortly after Barnes’ article was published, Dr. Dre made a public apology about his misdemeanors in the past).
In spite of its problematic aspects, the movie still works mainly because of the charismatic performances by its young cast members. O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell are energetic and commanding as believably embodying their respective roles, and Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. also provide good supporting performances although their characters are mostly held at the fringe of the story. These young actors get along well with each other on the screen, and their performances function as the emotional anchor to hold us during the sketchy third act, which involves with the eventual reconciliation among the N.W.A. members and the sad early departure of one of them.
Considering that it was co-produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, it is not surprising that “Straight Outta Compton” is a rather sanitized version of the life and career of them and their colleagues, but this is a well-made film with enough amount of excitement and entertainment, and I enjoyed it despite my reservation. The boys were often unwise and reckless, but they grew up anyway.