Thursday, August 13, 2015
Review: "Straight Outta Compton"
Even for a total rap agnostic like yours truly, it wasn't hard to recognize the power and brutal honesty of N.W.A. and the other early driving forces of what came to be known as "gangsta rap."
Exploding on the staid late 1980s music scene like a Molotov cocktail at a cocktail party, N.W.A.'s 1988 album, "Straight Outta Compton," gave voice to a generation of young black men who grew up feeling like they had the boot of society in general, and law enforcement officials in particular, pressed up against the back of their neck.
Their music was loud, proud, rude, crude, defiant and energetic. Shocking to mainstream white ears, these were the true life stories of urban youths surrounded every day by violence and drugs.
The movie about them, directed by F. Gary Gray from a script by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, traces the quick rise and quicker fall of N.W.A., but also aims for more. It's essentially the history of the first decade of a new art form and the seedy, frequently violent business that sprung up around it. We witness the rise of the East Coast-vs.-West Coast rap war, and watch artists pushed aside by thugs.
Keep in mind, this is essentially the "authorized biography" version of N.W.A. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the two main driving forces of the group, serve as producers on the film and Cube's real-life son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., plays him (and is a charismatic dead ringer). Not surprisingly, they come off looking the best in the movie.
Dre (Corey Hawkins) is portrayed as the artistic purist, the music producer and idea man who comes up with the beats and polishes the sounds. Cube is the surly, beating heart of the group, who pens rhymes about his young life of struggle and spits them out angrily at an uncaring world.
Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is depicted as the accidental front man, a drug dealer who put up the money for N.W.A.'s first album and got recruited to lay down some of the lines others had written. He becomes the overnight mogul of Ruthless Records, and hoards much of the fame and cash for himself. Eazy died of AIDS at the age of 31, and his passing serves as the denouement of rap's innocence.
Other group members DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) are essentially shunted off to the side. Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti, is the Svengali whispering in Eazy's ear. He's quite a conniver in the film's depiction, a money grubber who pitted the N.W.A. crew against each other, convincing them to leave the "paperwork" of the business side to him -- and always made sure his end was covered first.
Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) wades into the film about halfway through, a brutish bodyguard who muscles his way into the management side of the rap game, promising protection but offering servitude. The real Suge is currently jail after allegedly running down two men with his car, one fatally, after leaving the set of this film.
The music of N.W.A. is the centerpiece of the film, and Gray grandly captures the vibrancy and anger of their lyrics. White suburban kids like me might've been shocked by songs with (cleaned-up) titles like "Eff tha Police," but then I didn't get thrown onto the hood of an LAPD squad car while walking home and have my homework rifled through for drugs.
The middle section of the film is predictably fat, with an over-emphasis on the hard-partying ways of N.W.A., with a lot of bouncing female flesh on display for little reason. One of the key criticisms of rap, and this cinematic reflection of it, is how it objectifies women.
At nearly 2½ hours, the film is too long and too self-indulgent for its own good. But it captures the excitement and danger of N.W.A. and the cultural movement it fostered.