‘Straight Outta Compton’ blasted into theaters last weekend, captivating the country by challenging the status quo of the musical biopic, similarly to what the subjects of the film did almost 30 years ago as the incendiary rap group, N.W.A., challenged the status quo of what young black Americans were dealing with in the streets of Los Angeles. They struck a chord with revolutionary material, mainly authored by Ice Cube, with innovative, captivating beats by Dre, and marked with authenticity due to the involvement of drug dealer, Eazy-E, firmly planting the west coast on the rap scene. The film version of their marked rise and inevitable flame-out is brought to very entertaining life, if a bit too Hollywood glamourized, using a cast of unknowns to capture a particular time in music history when rap evolved to the next level.
The film takes the familiar beats of a musical biopic, but the subject matter and the studied cast keep things compelling throughout. O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his own father, primary lyricist Ice Cube, to eerie perfection, not just because he is a spitting image and carries many of his mannerisms, but because he understands the man’s drive and determination to own his art on his own terms. Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre doesn’t fare as well in mimicking his subject, but is able to reveal Dre’s protective nature and pure love of the artform – DJ talent on full glorious display. The biggest revelation is Jason Mitchell, playing Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright, effectively capturing all the strengths and weaknesses of a particular character in the history of rap. Eazy-E, with his distinctive voice, succumbed to his demons and rued losing the support of Dre and Cube – in many ways, his naivete and surprisingly trustful nature took part in his downfall, represented by Mitchell with subtle nuance as well as fits of ego.
The film falters in some of its’ presentation of authenticity, a distracting and unwelcome factor that forces one to question some of the more controversial depictions. From the start, the film presents the actors in clothing (particularly the baseball caps and jerseys) that is not representative of the times. This comes off as an attempt to create a sense of immediacy and modern fashion, but rings false when telling a story intercut with real footage. It’s great to see the group in their heyday over the end credits, but it really becomes apparent that memories of ill-fitting clothes (baggy pullovers and jeans, not quite fitted hats, etc.) are more factual than what is being represented on screen. It’s more than a minor gripe as this tendency to glamourize and short-change scenes of tension (making things a bit too tidy as compared to reality) keeps this film from soaring, but is nonetheless very entertaining and elicits emotions of outrage, sadness, nostalgia, and love for the music that helped shape a generation of rap fans . . .
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff
Running Time: 147 min.
* * * (out of 4 stars) -or- B