More than any other genre, gangster rap proudly wears its history on its sleeve. Engaging with your favorite rapper meant embracing their stage persona and the hyper reality in which they lived. The artist’s personal stories diluted through the grand gangster mythology made for an engrossing, if exaggerated, narrative that captivated audiences beyond just liking the music. It’s for this reason Straight Outta Compton can be forgiven for embracing the egos of its subjects and going light on anything to ruin their outlandish image. There are certainly some unsavory elements of their history that have been whitewashed, but for the most part the film sticks to the history where it counts and allows its three main characters to feel flawed and fully realized despite being a bit of a vanity project. If you’re someone who hates the bravado and offensive lyrics of N.W.A. you can give this one a miss, but fans both casual and hardcore alike can look forward to one of the most entertaining musical biopics in years.
Straight Outta Compton follows the friendship, success and splintering of N.W.A.’s most successful and high profile members; Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., son of the actual Ice Cube) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). Sharing the title of N.W.A.’s first studio album, the film takes us from the group’s origin as oppressed teenagers in Compton to wealthy rap stars letting pride and money pull them apart.
While there’s plenty of hip-hop history to sink your teeth into, Straight Outta Compton‘s thematic structure rests on the friendship of its three central characters. Despite some pacing issues it’s here the film finds the most success, convincing you how important each were to the other’s success and positioning them as three trodden-on kids against the world. The fun of watching them work together and take the world by storm lays the ground work for some genuine emotion as they feud and split apart, giving a real sense of loss as they try to enjoy their success without each other’s company. For fear of spoilers I’ll go ahead and assume you don’t know what happens with these guys, but suffice to say the film chooses its climax smartly to bring these themes home. It’s a structure that would have worked wonderfully if it weren’t for the slow slog in getting to the conclusion. While there is plenty going on in the film’s second half, the sad truth is it just isn’t as entertaining or explosive as its first. Once the group hits success, the film rapidly loses momentum and dangers toward boring the audience it had just injected so much adrenaline into.
It’s an incredible shame director F. Gary Gray couldn’t find a way to keep the excitement going as the three slip into more comfortable lives. The prejudice against the young African-Americans by the police instills the early sections of the movie with an anti-authoritarian vigor that carries on to help us forgive their behavior as acts of righteous rebellion. But once they start living behind safer walls this all starts to feel a bit distant, as though its predominance in the first half was a bit of a tease. The issues of inequity do stick around, but it all becomes background noise emanating from television sets and streets very distant from our protagonists. The softer touch the Straight Outta Compton decides to hang its hat on is perfectly admirable, but the discrepancy in tone from the first half is just a little too much and holds the film back from the success it could have reached.
The good news is the uneven pacing is easily the biggest flaw and, so long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, there isn’t too much else to complain about. The three stars, along with Paul Giamatti’s opportunistic manager Jerry Heller, prove interesting and enjoyable enough to carry the film even through its slower moments. It is a bit odd to see Giamatti play such a similar role to his part in this year’s other big music bio Love and Mercy, but that is perhaps too easy a comparison to make as here he provides a much more empathetic and understandable antagonist. While he does lose some of the sinister intensity we saw there, it’s refreshing to see a bit more humanity in the age-old archetype of the ‘evil music industry man’. This comes out mostly as a reaction to be confronted later in the film, but the seeds are planted by the genuine affection he feels towards Eazy-E, even if he is ultimately a corrupting figure.
Mitchell gets the biggest chance to shine as Eazy, handling the melancholy and regret that take him over with expertise and subtlety as he laments the loss of his friends and the consequences of his mistakes. When held against his criminal origins (with which the film smartly opens), him fully embracing the rockstar ego his success rides and him giving in all to easy to greed at the cost of his comrade, Eazy becomes the lynchpin of the film and the perfect avatar for the film’s grander comments of the genre and industry in general.
Conversely, Ice Cube is given a far more protagonistic, and much less fallible, role as the brain behind the music, and someone unwilling to be taken advantage of when Eazy and Heller begin to take control. Cube’s uncompromising attitude and presentation as the biggest raw talent make him come dangerously close to being eye-rolling, but luckily Jackson Jr. turns out to be incredibly easy to root for and does his old man proud by turning him into a symbol of N.W.A.’s vision while the other members get caught up in their financial BS. Which isn’t to say he isn’t bothered by monetary concerns, rather his growing frustration and finally reacting to never getting what is owed to him proves to be one of the more fun subplots and solidifies the character’s critical edge.
By virtue of being the most levelheaded of the trio, Hawkins’ Dr. Dre gets the least exciting material to work with, despite being the driving force for the group and the movement that followed. Dre is a little too aww-shucks at times (especially if you’re aware of some of the things in his life the movie skips over), but this doesn’t render him as boring so much as a straight man trying to tow the line between his Compton roots and his big business ambitions.
What’s really wonderful about Straight Outta Compton is the simplicity with which the film explores greater themes while staying within the confines of a biopic. At times it’s a representation of rap music as a whole, with each of its three core characters representing different aspects of the genre. At others it’s a visceral reminder that last year’s events in Ferguson are part of a much deeper problem that stretches back decades and is something America seems eternally burdened by. At it’s best, it is a film about how great things can be accomplished with a like-minded group of friends working together, and how fragile that friendship is in the wake of a little bit of greed and a little bit of pride.
Were it not for how much steam the film loses in it’s second half, this could have been a slam-dunk. But even with how uneven it feels and the rose-colored glasses with which the story is told, Straight Outta Compton remains one of the most fun and exhilarating musical biopics in memory.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10