There's an amusing bit of archival footage in Straight Outta Compton in which a stern-looking Tom Brokaw notes that the up-and-coming hip-hop group N.W.A. is taking rap music to new heights. “Or,” Brokaw soberly adds, “to new lows.” Today, there's an air of nostalgia that surrounds the group, which is what happens when talented artists reach a certain age and people start using terms like “classic” and “old-school” and “legend.” What F. Gary Gray's energetic N.W.A. biopic seeks to do is take us back to a time when these rap icons were just a bunch of gifted, ambitious young kids lighting up the world. For the most part, it succeeds.
Though N.W.A.'s lineup shifted here and there over the course of the group's lifespan, the film opts to focus on its three most famous members: Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell, Broken City), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Cory Hawkins, The Walking Dead) and O'Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr. - yes, Ice Cube's own son). There's a lot of charm and fun in the scenes featuring these guys figuring out who they are and what they want to do. We watch them giddily congratulate themselves after recognizing that their first single (“Boyz-n-the-Hood”) is actually great, and watch them try to mask their delight when big opportunities start coming their way. There's a relaxed, charming chemistry between the young actors that goes a long way towards selling this stuff: just look at the scene in which an amused Dr. Dre gently attempts to help Eazy-E figure out the rhythms of “Boyz-n-the-Hood.”
The group's ascendance begins in earnest after Eazy-E meets up with music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), who makes promises of stardom that he quickly proceeds to deliver on. Sure, he's not treating everyone equally (Eazy-E – whose voice was featured on the first single – is initially regarded as the real superstar of the group) and he's laying a foundation for a series of financial problems in the future, but he's certainly committed to his promise. In many ways, this is a more sympathetic take on the sort of self-serving music manager Giamatti played in Love & Mercy. There, he was a vile monster. Here, he's a human being with a few weaknesses – just like everybody else.
Alas, as N.W.A.'s popularity rises, so does their notoriety. The group's violent, misogynistic lyrics stoke media controversies and protests, but it's their anti-police lyrics that cause them the most trouble. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, a group of Detroit cops warn the group not to play their infamous anthem “F--- tha Police” during their concert. Midway through the performance, a pissed-off Ice Cube convinces the guys to go ahead and play it anyway, leading to police officers storming the stage and making arrests. The film doesn't bother asking the question of whether the group's lyrics were too inflammatory, because the question is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The members of N.W.A. have the right to say whatever they want to say, but members of law enforcement are pretending that right doesn't exist.
The film is at its most potent when dealing with the subject of police bigotry and brutality, largely because the decades-old moments of violent, racially-charged harassment the film depicts are still being re-enacted today. There are numerous scenes of ugly police behavior early on, and later the film threads in footage from the Rodney King riots, where “F--- tha Police” became a rallying cry. Whatever you may think of N.W.A.'s approach, they were talking with blunt, angry directness about the problems the rest of pop culture largely ignored. “Gangsta rap” became the official label, but the group's own description of their music feels more apt: “reality rap.”
Gray's direction is absorbing and energetic for the first hour-plus (he brings an enormous amount of vigor to the big concert sequences), but eventually, he's a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of biographical details he needs to deal with. Straight Outta Compton is nearly two and half hours long, but portions of it feel uncomfortably pressed for time: after a series of arguments inspire the guys to go their separate ways, we breeze through Dr. Dre's assorted business endeavors, Ice Cube's Hollywood career, Eazy E's money problems and a host of other subjects so quickly that the film struggles to avoid turning into an audiovisual Wikipedia entry. This weakness becomes most prominent when it comes to Eazy-E's eventual battle with HIV, which is introduced with an Ominous Movie Cough and then moves forward with such speed that the whole thing never attains the emotional weight it deserves. The real Ice Cube is one of the film's producers, and he spoke with pride about the broad territory it covers: “I don't know any other movie where you can mix gangster rap, the F.B.I., the L.A. riots, HIV and f---ing feuding with each other.” True enough, but the film might have benefited from a little more focus (or from a six-hour HBO miniseries that gave the story more time to breathe).
Still, this is above-par as biopics go, turning in some dynamic musical sequences, resisting formulaic storytelling beats for a large portion of its running time, effectively (if somewhat superficially) tapping into some relevant themes and drawing strong performances out of its mostly-unknown cast. The casting is completely on-point – when the real members of N.W.A. start popping up in archival footage featured throughout the end credits, you have to squint a little bit to make sure you aren't seeing the actors (Jackson, Jr. in particular is a dead ringer for his dad). It's also a real comeback for Gray – easily his best effort since The Negotiator (his work here is already earning him high-profile blockbuster assignments). I'm can't say how the film will play for the group's devoted fans (my familiarity with N.W.A.'s music before seeing the movie was more or less limited to their hits), but it certainly made me want to explore more of their work. If you need me, I'll be the bespectacled white dude in the corner awkwardly bobbing his head to “Gangsta Gangsta.”
Straight Outta Compton
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 146 minutes
Release Year: 2015