The surprise hit of 2015, Straight Outta Compton may not go down as iconic in the way its source material did, but its still a well-cast and stylish music biopic.
Straight Outta Compton is directed by F. Gary Gray and follows the early careers of Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) as they formed the pioneering rapper group NWA. The true life story is quite compelling – humble beginnings in rough areas of LA to hitting it big and impacting the racism issues of the times, to eventually falling out and going their separate ways. However, the film often feels unfocused in what its trying to present to the audience. There was a plethora of fascinating events that impacted the group, including the race riots, police brutality and criticism in the media and many of these elements are touched on but not explored. They act more like window dressing to the main focus of the narrative – how the group falls apart over contracts and record labels. Even typing that is not as interesting as typing ‘race riots’. Not only is it less engaging, but it alienates casual viewers not familiar with the music scene. Its a shame because much of the themes of racism and media criticism that are touched on are executed well and in an interesting fashion. Its a big missed opportunity and hinders the impact the film could have had on contemporary issues and viewer interest.
That being said, the story that is told is still mostly solid. There are a number of convoluted ideas that are not properly explained, and it gets a bit repetitive by the end, but the falling out of the characters themselves is still effective. It also doesn’t pull any punches – honesty that is impressive considering Dr Dre and Ice Cube themselves were producers on the film. Its admirable, and gives the film elements of grey, although there are still clearly defined antagonists and protagonists. While the second half of the film is repetitive, there are a number of character and emotional moments that are executed very well. Just not well enough to make the ending not feel like an anticlimax.
The cast of Compton is pitch-perfect (GET IT?!) and the strongest element of the film. The main trio all believably showcase the passion and skills of their respective characters, to the point that its not a stretch to believe they are the original NWA. O’Shea Jackson in particular personifies Ice Cube, unsurprising considering he’s his son, and Jason Mitchell deserves a mention purely on the strength of his emotional beats near the end of the late Eazy-E’s life. Paul Giamatti also steals quite a lot of screen time as he portrays the original manager of NWA Jerry Heller, and does an impressive job manipulating the ambiguous motivations of the character to the point where its never completely clear to the audience if he’s earnest or selfish and so becomes a constant source of intrigue.
The direction and style of director F. Gary Gray is also worth a mention as he imbues the entire movie with a constant flowing beat, and cleverly interweaves the capstone rap into many different scenes. Certain set pieces involving large concerts and riots are also given a sense of excitement and energy which further contributes to Compton‘s engagement. While there are a couple of contrived scenes where the background music threatens to overwhelm the narrative, its mostly kept in check, and overall his sense of style is both felt but also subdued enough that its not distracting.
Straight Outta Compton may have a misguided focus and several additional flaws, but the talent of the director and the cast make this a far better biopic than it could have been. An easy recommendation to any fans of hip-hop – also less Eazy for casual viewers.
General Audience: Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended
True Believers (Hip-hop): Highly Recommended