Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Straight Outta Compton

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The summer's best origin story isn't the latest cash-in from Marvel Comics, but F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton," which is also one of the best music biopics of recent years. One of the elements that makes the film so special is that - much like Todd Haynes' biopic gold standard "I'm Not There" - while the film focuses on the career trajectory and personal lives of its subject - in this case, controversial hip hop group N.W.A. - it's also about much more than just music or a rags to riches story.

Set against the backdrop of Compton - the rough Los Angeles neighborhood where N.W.A.'s members grew up - during the late 1980s in the midst of the Ronald Reagan administration's war on drugs and just a few years before the videotaped Rodney King beating by the LAPD and subsequent L.A. riots, "Straight Outta Compton" may spin a tale about the early days of gangsta rap, but its timeliness in the way it views abuses by police on black communities cannot be understated.

Much like a comic book movie, although significantly better, "Compton" tells the origin story of three of the group's members - Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., the rapper's son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) - but it also makes room for a number of iconic figures of 1980s and 1990s hip hop, including MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), N.W.A.'s other two members, as well as The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Warren G (Sheldon A. Smith).

But the two other figures who stand out most, aside from the film's three leads, are Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, the group's white manager who does not appear to have his client's best interests at heart, and R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight, the notorious co-founder of Death Row Records who used intimidation and often violence to ensure his place as a music industry mogul.

As the film opens in 1986, Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) is a low level drug dealer who flees from the scene of a drug house that is being raided by the police. On the other side of town are aspiring DJ Dr. Dre, who lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and Ice Cube, a noteworthy lyricist who steals moments on stage at a local club when the proprietor steps out. The two pair up with Eazy, who wants to make some career changes, and decide to put together some songs of what they call "reality rap" or, as Ice Cube puts it, dispatches from their neighborhood that act as a sort of journalism.

Although the film occasionally adopts a Behind the Music-style of storytelling, what makes it so fascinating is how it tells N.W.A.'s story amid the scene of social unrest taking place in the group's Los Angeles neighborhood. There are several intense and frightening scenes in the picture and aside from one in which a group of gang bangers board Ice Cube's school bus to threaten a student and several involving Knight, most of them are sequences of police brutality.

"Compton" has been long in the making and I'm not sure when these scenes were written, but they are powerful not only because they are well shot and acted, but also due to their significance in a 2015 America when unarmed black men are still being shot down - or beaten or strangled - by cops. There is a particularly remarkable sequence during which all five members of the group are egregiously searched and forced to lay face down on the sidewalk outside the studio in which they are recording their landmark 1988 album. Heller, their manager, steps outside and begins yelling at the police officers who are mistreating his clients and it's telling how the cops react to an older white man as opposed to young black men. Later, Gray and company stage a brief, but extremely well-made, recreation of the L.A. riots.

"Compton" is a very good movie, even if its second half feels a bit overstuffed - a 2Pac sequence, Ice Cube writing "Friday," Dr. Dre's arrest for drunk driving and a finale involving Dre's new company that feels a little rushed. Among the best scenes of the film's latter half are those in which Eazy discovers he has AIDS and, despite several years of intense feuding between N.W.A.'s members, the group has a reunion, of sorts. Another great sequence is Cube's recording of the diss track "No Vaseline" and his former bandmates' reaction, which begins in anger but results in their admitting that the song was pretty good.

The film is also the best to date by Gray, a filmmaker who has mostly made genre films, such as the stoner cult classic "Friday" as well as the underrated "The Negotiator" and "Set It Off." "Compton" is his first picture since the disastrous "Law Abiding Citizen" and it shows that he can handle strong dramatic material. The movie also looks great, which should come as no surprise considering that its director of photography was Matthew Libatique, who has been a long-time collaborator of Darren Aronofsky.

Although there have been numerous biopics of famous musicians, there are very few about hip hop artists, other than "Notorious," the slightly disappointing movie about The Notorious B.I.G. "Straight Outta Compton" will likely be the one to which future movies about the musical genre will aspire. It's an exciting, very well acted and shot, occasionally heartbreaking and often righteously angry film that, much like last year's "Selma," takes a moment in recent history and shows how it remains incredibly relevant today.

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