The late ‘80s was a watershed era for music. There was a revolution against pop music driven by synthesizers and lyrics that were either superficial or overly conceptualized. New genres emerged, motivated by earthy, raw and real experiences. Some of these movements included grunge, hardcore and lo-fi music. Specific to the Los Angeles ghetto was gangsta rap, pioneered by the likes Ice-T and N.W.A. Depending on who you asked, it was a dangerous, brash style of rap that glamorized sex, drugs and the gang lifestyle or it was an angry revolt against oppression by the police and a frustrated howl against the disenfranchisement of those living in the inner cities.
With Straight Outta Compton, his biopic on N.W.A. (i.e. Niggaz Wit Attitudes) director F. Gary Gray, whose debut as a filmmaker was a music video for Ice Cube, does not gloss over both of these sides of N.W.A.’s story. It opens with a scary dope deal involving Eazy E (Jason Mitchell in an impressive debut starring role) and ends with the consequences of his hard-partying lifestyle. Best known for action films like The Italian Job (2003) and most recently Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Gray made his feature film debut with the cult favorite Friday (1995), starring Ice Cube, who co-wrote that film’s screenplay. In Straight Outta Compton, though he is working off a script and story by five writers, Gray blends the story’s gravitas with a kinetic style of filmmaking that still has moments of great humor (the scene where Eazy E finds his voice in the studio while recording “Boyz-N-the Hood” is a high point) and a nimble pace.
Gray never lets up the tempo, despite a near two and a half hour run time. His flair for the music video comes across in moments as obvious as when the group takes the stage or in the smaller moments, like the intro to Dr. Dre (an exceptional Corey Hawkins). The slowly spinning camera compliments the fact that Dre is reclining on a bunch of records with his headphones, on listening to “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayres, a song he would later sample in 2001’s “My Life.” The film is rich in these small details (including some sly references to Friday).
In the wider scheme, Gray never misses an opportunity to make encounters with the police confrontational. At the same time, he never lets the group off on their self-destructive hedonism. There are parties in hotel rooms and Dr. Dre’s house over-flowing with naked and willing groupies. But even deeper, are the egos that made the group so unstable (they only released two albums). You get the sense that though the music united them, it also divided them. They were strong and passionate as they railed against police oppression in “F**k Tha Police,” but they also turned that energy on themselves. There were the diss tracks to one another like N.W.A.’s “Message to B.A.” after Ice Cube left the group (B.A. stands for Benedict Arnold) and then Ice Cube’s take-no-prisoners response “No Vaseline,” which even included a jab at Jerry Heller, the band’s manager.
Speaking of Heller, Paul Giamatti takes the role, bringing a humanity to the music mogul accused of taking advantage of the group. White people do not come off well in this movie, however. Heller and Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington), have a couple of hokey high-pitched scenes in the face of threatening acts by Eazy E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Most of the stop-and-frisk obsessed officers are white, save for the black officer who leads a search on the group in front of the recording studio, an event that winds up inspiring Ice Cube to write “Fuck the Police.” But everyone does great work as actors in the film. The film’s standouts are Mitchell and Jackson Jr., who happens to be Ice Cube’s son. Both have important emotional opportunities on this roller coaster of a drama, and the performances are consistent and easy to empathize with throughout the film. The only time Gray ratchets up the cinematic sentimentality too far is after Eazy E’s AIDS diagnosis. It’s really a disservice to Mitchell’s ability to carry the drama.
Finally, there is a timeliness to this film. N.W.A. arrived during a tense time in Los Angeles history. The tension between police and young black males was at fever pitch. The rap group’s rise to fame grew with the tensions that included the caught-on-video beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots after the officers’ were acquitted of their actions on the unarmed black man. Now, once again, there is tension among police and African-Americans. The cameras are more ubiquitous this time and some of the crimes have grown increasingly violent, involving guns and fatalities. There have been riots, as well. Yet, no one in the popular music scene has taken the spotlight quite like N.W.A. did — the fuming personification of angst through artistry.
Straight Outta Compton runs 147 minutes and is rated R (the parties, the drugs, the language and violence that N.W.A. rapped about is all here). It opens in wide release this Friday, Aug. 14. Click here for tickets. Universal Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Universal.
Update: The Miami independent theater O Cinema is bringing Straight Out of Compton to its Wynwood location beginning Friday, Aug. 21. Details here.