Straight Outta Compton is a musically propulsive mixed blessing of a biopic, made the way these things often get made: with the real-life protagonists breathing down the movie’s neck to make sure nothing too harsh or unflattering gets in the way of the telling.
Three of the film’s producers are Ice Cube (born O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Andre Young) and Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. As relayed by director F. Gary Gray, the rise of South Central L.A. hip-hop revolutionaries N.W.A begins in Compton, California, in 1986 and ends less than a decade later, with Eazy’s AIDS-related death in 1995. By then N.W.A had altered American culture and mainstreamed gangsta rap along with gangsta misogyny, tilting hip-hop from the East Coast to the West, fomenting musical rivalries and nervous debate about the group’s value all along the way.
The first half of the film features the fun stuff; in any musical biopic, the road to stardom is more involving than second-act discussions of management contracts.
We meet young Cube, played by Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr., as he and up-and-coming deejay Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) convince drug-dealing Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to funnel some of his profits into a new record label, Ruthless Records. “Straight Outta Compton” leans heavily on the creation of N.W.A’s 1988 studio bombshell of the same name. The closer the film sticks to the recording booth—with one striking exception—the more vivid its impact.
The exception is a scene eerily on point with the headlines coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. Taking a break from recording the album, Cube, Dr. Dre and company are standing outside the studio in Torrance, California, when local police roll up and the accusations and troubles begin. Paul Giamatti plays the group’s manager, Jerry Heller, who at this point has not yet shown the movie’s version of Heller’s true stripes. The cops shake down the young men and denigrate the very existence of rap music. Describing what happens in this scene makes it sound corny and false, but as it plays out, the tension feels real and emotionally authentic. Then, in a quick cut, N.W.A’s most famous provocation—the one we’ll call “To Blazes With Tha Law Enforcement Officials,” is being recorded and becomes a national anthem for millions.
Jackson Jr. artfully evokes Ice Cube’s tough-guy charisma. Mitchell’s Eazy emerges as the film’s most complicated figure, throwing his lot in with a manager who may not have his best interests at heart. The wives, girlfriends and groupies come and go, fleetingly, often nude, more often scolds or drags on the good times.
As shaped by screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, Straight Outta Compton alternates between party scenes, filmed by director Gray exactly as if they were hip-hop videos (the objectifying perspectives never change, only the posteriors), and confrontations or reconciliations. A tougher-minded biopic would’ve had the nerve to acknowledge some of the group’s seamier material and its role in the group’s international success.
Similarly, there’s no mention of Dre pleading no contest to the brutal beating of TV host Dee Barnes. Ice Cube recently told Grantland: “We made a pact that if they do anything to Hollywood this movie, we outta here.” But Hollywooding a true story can mean many different things. Straight Outta Compton at its best evokes the heady atmosphere of Crenshaw Boulevard and what the group’s success meant to Compton, and vice versa. When the songs themselves take center stage the movie works. What remains in the wings constitutes another, fuller story.
Straight Outta Compton (R): ★★★✩✩