“Straight Outta Compton” is a thought-provoking assault on the senses that ultimately falls short of the brutal honesty of the music that inspired it.
Filmed on the Compton, Calif., streets that spawned what would become known as “the world’s most dangerous group,” director F. Gary Gray’s biopic is a fierce, surprisingly funny celebration of defiance set against a backdrop of racial unrest that feels depressingly familiar almost 30 years later.
N.W.A. founders Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson have become entertainment moguls in their own right since the group’s notorious implosion in the early ’90s, but “Straight Outta Compton” is primarily the story of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who decided in 1986 to sell records instead of drugs in a neighborhood where the police knocked on doors with battering rams.
The five members of N.W.A. are perfectly cast, the performances instantly believable. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is a dead ringer for his father, showing off more talent in his screen debut than his dad has ever revealed on camera. Juilliard grad Corey Hawkins is restrained and cool as Dr. Dre. And Jason Mitchell, best known for “Contraband,” is pitch-perfect as the pint-sized, menacing Eazy-E.
N.W.A.’s raucous ride to the top occupies the emotional first half of “Compton,” which artfully introduces all five members and their hookup with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the manager who helped Eazy form Ruthless Records.
“Compton” works best in the recording studio, re-creating the creative process behind rap’s greatest hits and later chronicling the discovery of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. When N.W.A. goes on tour, the concert scenes are electric, even before the police show up in Detroit, inciting a near riot.
Law enforcement, especially the LAPD, is merely the first hate-filled antagonist “Straight Outta Compton” dishes up for the guys to rail against, with scenes of repeated harassment that are hard to watch. Heller’s greedy tactics eventually transform his character from hero to villain. But when Dr. Dre decides to team up with ultra-violent producer Suge Knight, ugliness and violence take over the West Coast rap scene for good.
N.W.A.’s downfall is a classic music industry tragedy: Scrappy kids hit it big, fight over money and become enemies. N.W.A. and Ice Cube took the squabble into the studio. One hilarious scene splices Cube angrily recording the legendary diss track “No Vaseline” with close-ups of his former buddies hearing it for the first time as their girlfriends giggle.
Director Gray, known for “The Italian Job” and Ice Cube’s 1995 comedy “Friday,” made “Straight Outta Compton” with Dre, Cube and Eazy’s widow acting as producers and script consultants. The arrangement makes for a fascinating insider’s viewpoint, but an undoubtedly incomplete one.
When they’re not being victimized by cops, our heroes are chummy sweethearts who give hugs and play dominoes. Dre, in particular, comes out looking too saintly to be believed. There’s not a hint of his pattern of violence toward women, not even the public beating of radio host Dee Barnes in 1991.
When women do appear, they’re usually groupies, treated as jiggling scenery with booty-level camera shots. After watching N.W.A. get serviced by naked strangers in a hotel room, it’s hard to take their tender feelings seriously when the script hurriedly decides to show them off as devoted family men.
Besides, it’s the relationships among the men that are most compelling. N.W.A.’s friendships crumble against the backdrop of the Rodney King trial and the riots that followed. Grainy news footage transports the story to the summer of 1992, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about how much has really changed.
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‘STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
Rated R | Time: 2:37