Inspired, electric and full of the same rawly honed talent that drove its subjects to their creative heights, if Straight Outta Compton were the last musical biopic ever made, it would have been worth suffering through all of the perfunctory crap the genre has produced in the past.
Where most biopics lean on the lead performance like a crutch, Straight Outta Compton puts the ensemble cast portraying landmark group N.W.A. square in the middle as its beating heart, pumping lifeblood and significance into even the most ancillary scenes. Instead of cloyingly prescient scenes of, for example, baby Dre hearing his first record, director F. Gary Gray treats his subjects like fully developed individuals with minds of their own whose artistry belongs to them, neither divinely inspired nor accidental. And when the film depicts situations that anyone with a passing knowledge of N.W.A. already knows, Gray and the cast bring an emotional depth that makes even the most familiar story a joy to watch.
One of director Gray’s most effective decisions is the way he introduces the young men who form N.W.A. in 1986. All are in their late teens, living in an environment that forces adulthood upon them in one way or another. The opening scene follows Eazy-E being cornered in a drug deal, weapons drawn and threats made, when due to the chaos of a S.W.A.T. team raid, he escapes through a back window, jumping across rooftops.
Dr. Dre has already made a name for himself as a DJ for hire and budding producer, which is his passion but isn’t feeding his child or paying the rent.
We see Ice Cube writing rhymes while being bussed away from his suburban high school back to Compton, later dominating the stage while performing for a hardened crowd while Dre spins. All are routinely stopped, searched and sometimes assaulted by the police for simply being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When group manager Jerry Heller enters the picture, he is a substantive character with positive and negative qualities instead of just another Svengali archetype. (Yes, Ren and Yella are barely in the movie. Yes, this is a problem in terms of history. But the movie still works.)
This foundation proves critical to the story that follows, which is the tale of young men who find themselves becoming the embodiment of the anger and frustration facing their community. The moment where Dre first convinces Eazy to take the mic, moving from project financier to full member of the fledgling group, does not feel like a mandatory reenactment of what proved to be a momentous decision. It’s as natural, funny and rooted in the moment as these talented teenagers were, free from the rose-tinted glasses biopics too often used for such scenes. This remains true for most of the film, from the event that inspired “Fuck tha Police” to the later animosity and dis tracks between solo Cube and the remaining N.W.A. members.
As the movie approaches the end of its 147 minutes, it does lose some of its clarity. Eazy and Heller’s relationship takes turns that may be historically accurate but can be dramatically confusing, and the depiction of Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight veers into cartoonish territory. The film also leaves some of the extreme traits of individual members unaddressed, such as Dre’s noted assault on journalist Dee Barnes.
But even with the direct participation and script approval of Cube, Dre and Eazy’s widow, Straight Outta Compton is mostly successful in steering clear of hagiography and hero worship. The chemistry is so palpable between the actors that every performance would be scene-stealing in any other film. The music is organic to the story and the characters. Some references may be too specific for audiences who haven’t done their homework in advance, but Straight Outta Compton is a film that will work for any audience, no matter their personal attachment to its subjects.
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Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX