Saturday, 26 September 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)


If there’s one thing I love more than cinema and all things geek, it’s hip-hop. From growing up around my parents’ love for gangsta rap, to going through school during Eminem’s glory days, to some rather unfortunate attempts at being an MC myself (that still exist on YouTube right now), it’s been a big factor on my upbringing. Probably one of the major songs that I can point to for being responsible for that is NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which my mother would often have playing around the house and in the car. Yeah, hearing her rapping along with the music might be the whitest thing short of Birth Of A Nation, but the timeless beat work and aggressive lyricism of those cats from Compton still resonate with me to this day. So, ever since the news hit that this biopic would be coming out, I have essentially been surfing on my own salivation over this film. But is this actually going to be that rare cross-section that people like me only get once in a blue moon? Dear Lord, I hope so. This is Straight Outta Compton.

The plot: Andre Young (Corey Hawkins), Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) and O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) are three youths trying to survive in 1980’s Compton, amidst the notoriously racist police force. Andre decides to start making his own music with O’Shea, with Eric as their manager. Under the individual names of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube, and the collective name NWA (Niggas With Attitude), their musical career would see them come face-to-face with the police, the industry, the public and each other, all the while their music would go on to influence the streets and the radios all starting with the release of their first studio album: Straight Outta Compton.

As soon as news hit about this film, the first thing that stuck out was the… interesting casting choices. The casting of Ice Cube’s real-life son to play him, at first glance, seems like one of those ideas that looks like gold on paper but doesn’t work so well on the screen. Just because Jaden Smith frequently gets cast as Will’s son in their movies doesn’t mean that he’s any more believable at portraying that connection. This time around though, to put it simply, he is Ice Cube on that screen and I dare not bring up how he ends up looking like Drake later on in the film out of fear he would trash my house like he does the Priority Records office. Not only does his performance fit exactly with how I envision Ice Cube but his dialogue reflects that as well. On wax, Cube never minced words; if he had a problem with someone, he would say it plain and simple, something that made him one of the most forceful and powerful MCs to come out of the West Coast. The script keeps that take-no-bullshit attitude intact, as O’Shea here tells it straight as well whenever he gets into confrontations with Eazy-E, his manager or the aforementioned record company. Given director F. Gary Gray’s previous experience with Cube, as well as the natural research that probably went into the performance, this is one of those moments when all the stars align to craft a perfect performance.

As for the rest of the cast, which originally was going to follow the same idea as Cube’s casting, their actors do excellently as well: Jason Mitchell gives a shady but still sympathetic turn as Eazy-E, whose interactions with the other members in the third act make for the most emotional scenes in the film; Corey Hawkins imbues Dr. Dre with the level-headedness to play ego in the group’s dynamic; and Paul Giamatti comes across as a pretty slimy manager, like the typical impression of a hip-hop music exec, but he fills the role with the charisma that it calls for. Even though Dre, Cube and E get the majority of the spotlight, credit to Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Ren and DJ Yella respectively, as their interactions with the rest of the group strengthen the group interactions in the earlier acts of the film. Other than the members of NWA themselves, we get some nice turns from Keith Stanfield as a decently-done Snoop Dogg and Marcc Rose/Darris Love as Tupac, but the main guy that sticks out outside of the Ruthless camp is R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, co-owner of Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records label. Suge has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the more violent parts of this overall story, and Taylor has an intimidating presence right from the off-set, morphing as the film goes on into something genuinely scary. In yet another result of life-imitates-art-imitates-life, this could be a result of him getting first-hand experience of Suge’s behaviour, given a certain incident that happened near the film set; Quiet On Da Set, indeed.

Given how a lot of the film takes the time to show the influence NWA’s music had on the political atmosphere of the time, it should come as no surprise that the soundtrack is a hip-hop head’s wet dream. Along with tracks from the titular album and subsequent releases connected to the group, shown during the recording process as well as being performed live, we also get contemporary classics of the genre like Jam Master Jay by Run-DMC and C.R.E.A.M. by the Wu-Tang Clan. Knowing the whole East Coast-West Coast rivalry hokum that ensues not long after the events of this film, seeing them recognize the cross-country respect that actually existed within the hip-hop community is welcomed. However, the soundtrack goes beyond just hip-hop and delves into its predecessors as well, including tracks from Roy Ayers, Zapp and the P-Funk collective; essentially, the music that formed the backbone for Dr. Dre’s signature G-Funk sound. This is the kind of acknowledgement and respect for the culture’s roots that honestly feels missing from a lot of other hip-hop biopics.

This film takes a large scope of the story, covering NWA’s success with the titular album, Cube’s separation from the group and the beef between the two and then Dre’s leaving the group, ending with Eazy-E’s death and the prospects of NWA getting back together sadly not coming to fruition. Naturally, since this is a biopic about the drama of the events rather than covering the entirety of those events, there’s a fair bit that has been left out and bits of it can feel rushed. Now, rather than go into all of what wasn’t included in here, like JJ Fad and their influence on the group, Tairrie B and her connection with Eazy-E or any of the other female artists that are connected to the overall story, I’m just going to accept that for the sake of tone and brevity, some things will be left out. It does feel a bit like some events were just covered for the sake of completion, like including 2Pac in the proceedings when the whole Death Row could serve as its own biopic (Which it will, as a sequel to this one is already in the works), but overall it portrays the group dynamics and conflicts well. That said, outrage in the face of a biopic is nothing new and simply putting down this movie for not sticking completely true to life isn’t feasible; if it were a documentary, different story, but as it stands this is far more than serviceable. Besides, it’s not as if NWA’s less reputable connections with women are completely hidden, as their misogynistic behaviour takes centre stage in a handful of scenes where they are indulging in the typical ‘gangsta rap’ lifestyle of hotel romps and poolside parties. As someone who has seen how far the sub-genre has dropped in the last few years, this is still remarkably tame compared to the exploits of their descendants.

Much like in NWA’s music, the film hits its highest points when it looks into their political context and their run-ins with the law. From the attempted prejudicial arrests outside of Jerry Haller’s office to the rioting after a particular live show in Detroit when the cops insisted they refrain from performing ‘Fuck The Police’, not only is the public reaction to their music addressed well but it also creates some genuinely beautiful moments. A few key scenes are set against the backdrop of the Rodney King police brutality case and the subsequent rioting across Los Angeles, with Eazy, Dre and Cube witnessing it all first-hand. This is some seriously powerful imagery here, and I once again have to bring up how kind of sickening it is that these images are still relevant today, showing the streets being empowered by the timeless beats and salient lyrics of NWA to rebel against their oppressors. As much as the interpersonal conflicts and label drama are well-written and delivered, this is where the heart of the film beats like a hummingbird on speed.



All in all, historical accuracy be damned, this is a remarkably well-handled biopic on one of the most influential groups in the entirety of hip-hop. The acting is top-notch, with a pitch-perfect turn from O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his dad, the writing may overstretch itself to fit everything onto screen but it’s helped by the fact that at least every event shown works within the context of the film’s timeline, and the soundtrack pays respect to both the music of the era and the classics that inspired it. There’s already work being done on making a sequel to this film, this time detailing Dr. Dre and the history of Death Row Records, and I can only hope that it’s half as good as this. And hey, even if you are offended by the portrayal (or lack of portrayal) of women in context to the story, I know there’s at least one thing we can all agree: Regardless of the quality of the film itself, it did finally get Dr. Dre back in the studio to release another album after Detox was waved in front of our faces for so many years. It ranks higher than Mad Max: Fury Road, which is undeniably more even-handed when it comes to gender politics, but this was a lot more consistent in terms of an overall film. However, it doesn’t quite match up to It Follows, given how I prefer my screenplays to give me something to think over for hours afterwards.

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