Straight Outta Compton has capped off a Summer movie calendar that has been nothing short of legendary for Universal this year! It’s perhaps appropriate then that this release comes to us from the routinely profitable Legendary Pictures, going for an interesting change of pace with Straight Outta Compton, a grounded and brutally honest biopic, despite the studio’s bread and butter largely consisting of high-scale blockbusters.
To its credit though, Straight Outta Compton does strut onto the theatrical stage with all of the pomp and presence of a true blockbuster however, being a lengthy and in-depth take on highly influential and controversial rap group, N.W.A. It’s a rare example of a musical biopic that incorporates many diverse and interesting personalities, somehow doing justice to such a storied history as the one behind N.W.A., even to those who don’t know the first thing about hip-hop music. Given its mighty and spectacular final product, it’s perhaps small wonder that the movie went on to become such a box office monster for weeks on end.
But is Straight Outta Compton a perfect movie though? Of course not, even if it is a very good one. The movie is undeniably biased about how it portrays N.W.A., often glorifying the majority of them as heroes and crusaders for the rights of the common people and free speech, and conveniently leaving out a lot of the group’s darker personal histories. This is actually quite strange, given that the rest of the movie is otherwise so effective at portraying harsh truths, interspersing key moments with stomach-turning historical events like the Rodney King beatings, to demonstrate the kind of impact that N.W.A. was having on the culture of the 90’s, and how it continues to influence the music medium even today.
Straight Outta Compton could have done with a trim in runtime, and its last act isn’t quite as strong as the first two, but it provides an engaging and often challenging look at some very fascinating people. Hip-hop fans and fans of N.W.A. will obviously get the most out of it, but even those that are merely curious about what the hubbub is about will find a drama that is both powerful and thought-provoking, and arguably one of the most satisfying biopics to come along in a while.
The early portions of Straight Outta Compton are jumpstarted by Eazy-E, which is appropriate, since he was the initial nucleus of N.W.A. The movie scratches upon the surface of Eazy-E’s moneymaking schemes, namely through selling drugs, but he does what he has to do to get studio time, and a manager that is willing to give the group serious airtime. Said manager comes in the form of Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti, who is probably the biggest name actor in the movie.
Eazy-E is easily the movie’s most interesting character, and often feels like the heart of N.W.A. It’s through his character that the state of the group and their brotherhood is best displayed, with Eazy-E being something of a father figure that is shouldered with the burden of trying to navigate N.W.A. through not only a difficult business, but also controversial public opinion that labels the group as criminals and disturbers of the peace. Likewise, actor, Jason Mitchell effectively realizes a complex and often tragic character in Eazy-E, working wonderfully with Giamatti, to create a bond that often feels touching and relatable, even as the true nature of Heller gradually comes out more and more as the movie goes on.
Straight Outta Compton puts further challenge on Mitchell to pay appropriate tribute to an artist as well, since Eazy-E died of AIDS back in the 90’s, an event that this movie does chronicle. Fortunately, he’s up to the task, creating an Eazy-E that is far from a perfect man, but one that feels must make difficult decisions to do what’s right for the group, even when those decisions can have some unexpected consequences.
Giamatti also delivers a smart performance as Heller, a seemingly benign and unassuming man who undeniably harbours a dark secret. Heller initially seems down-to-earth, which makes it easy to see why Eazy-E could convince the group to sign with him, but his darker moments later in the movie prove to be quite rewarding, especially as his particular bond with Eazy-E gradually begins to come apart.
Also given sizable parts are Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who are still well-known and flourishing individuals today, with Cube now being well-known as an actor as much as a musician, and Dr. Dre since becoming an executive of Apple with his own highly successful line of specialty Beats headphones. Cube is actually portrayed by the man’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., while Dre is portrayed by Corey Hawkins. Both do well in their parts, though their characters, despite some standout scenes, don’t quite achieve the same complex, engaging appeal as Eazy-E.
This issues comes from the fact that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are written to be less intricate personalities. They’re both portrayed as downtrodden heroes that rise up to become national sensations, but there’s little in the way of true obstacles for them, especially in contrast to Eazy-E. Any issues that are brought up with either man are solved rather quickly and cleanly, and that’s before the rather noticeable omissions of their own well-publicized darker moments in the past, namely Dre and his publicized abusive tendencies with some of his former girlfriends, which he’s since reformed from. These omissions do smack a little of bias and romanticizing, particularly when Cube and Dre are both producers of the movie.
Straight Outta Compton is also a movie heavy on testosterone, for better or for worse. This makes sense to a point, since this is a movie about brotherhood and all that comes with it, but if you’re hoping for an equal spotlight to be shone on the female influencers of N.W.A., namely the all-female rap group, J.J. Fad that they were affiliated with, none of that is present in the movie, and J.J. Fad is surprisingly omitted entirely. Most of the women in the movie are either talking heads, or simple eye candy in the partying scenes, so female viewers had best be advised that this is a movie that unfolds wholly from the perspective of men, if that matters to them.
There are other personalities that come and go, including cameos from personalities like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg (not played by themselves, obviously, particularly since Tupac is no longer with us), but most of Straight Outta Compton is held together by the inextricably linked, and yet often tumultuous brotherhood shared by Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and how that brotherhood was influenced by people like Jerry Heller, or the cutthroat stylings of enforcer, Suge Knight, among a few others. It’s a long and storied history, but one that Straight Outta Compton manages to make positively electrifying, even if Eazy-E seems to have gotten the best material of all.
It’s not an exaggeration to claim that Straight Outta Compton is a truly epic piece! The movie drops at a beastly 147-minute runtime, and that’s edited down from a rough cut that was over three hours long! It makes sense, since there’s a lot of history to cover with a group as fascinating and influential as N.W.A., and perhaps some of the blatantly omitted material was originally present in the director’s first cut.
With that said however, that doesn’t change the fact that Straight Outta Compton is too long, and could have easily had about 20-25 minutes chopped out of it. The pacing isn’t exactly terrible, in fairness, and the movie does a good job of keeping audiences interested in the first two acts, but it’s the third act that’s the weak link. The third act of the movie feels a bit meandering and unfocused, and the story direction begins to lose its way a bit, as if the movie can’t quite make up its mind on which note to end on.
The death of Eazy-E seems like the obvious choice to end the movie, since that was well-publicized in the 90’s, and is conveyed with emotional aplomb in Straight Outta Compton, but without spoiling anything, the movie doesn’t end there. Hell, even Eazy-E’s death could have been mentioned in a traditional final biopic text crawl rather than overtly displayed, which Straight Outta Compton does feature during the credits, revealing what Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went on to do, including Dre being the driving force behind the success of artists like Eminem and 50 Cent, who don’t actually make appearances in the movie.
As much as Straight Outta Compton is well-written, engaging and often very brutally illuminating in its material, it’s also not wholly subversive as far as music biopics go either. The movie contains a lot of the usual music biopic progression, including lots of scenes about partying and haters and the burdens of fame, etc.. It’s all done very well, but it isn’t a complete revolution of what you’ve seen before in movies like this.
Still, the legacy of N.W.A. is a powerful one, and it’s one that Straight Outta Compton explores with engagement and reverence. Many of the highlight scenes involve the group’s storied and controversial performances, right down to some of the very aggressive police intervention that took place during live performances of their work, and this is when the movie feels most impactful. Overall though, it’s a very strong music biopic, one with a clear voice, and plenty of draws even for non-fans of the group it’s portraying.
F. Gary Gray ended his directing hiatus for Straight Outta Compton, not having directed anything since 2009’s modestly successful revenge thriller, Law Abiding Citizen. As with that movie, Straight Outta Compton is given a hard, sometimes discomforting edge, with Gray easily being able to challenge audiences as a director, taking them out of their comfort zone, and finding engaging ways to present ugly realities, and how they’ve influenced our culture.
Gray’s history working with the real-life N.W.A. in the past also makes him the obvious choice to direct this biopic. Gray helms Straight Outta Compton with an intimate, knowledgeable hand, never sparing the audience from the true stakes behind the rise of N.W.A., and how it affected society. Again, his clear love and adoration for the personalities of N.W.A. does occasionally lead to a feeling of bias, but it’s not nearly enough to sink the production.
Gray’s direction finely balances feelings of triumph with feelings of raw, powerful upheaval. It gives Straight Outta Compton a more spectacular sense of personality and power compared to many biopics, and audiences will easily feel the kind of influence that N.W.A. had, as it unfolds before them. Again, fans of the real-life N.W.A. will get the most out of Gray’s smaller directing nuances, but even everyday moviegoers can still appreciate the clear amount of passion Gray has for the material, which often leaps to life on the big screen, making the story of N.W.A. feel like something easily relived and appreciated, even today.
Straight Outta Compton is a mighty and gripping biopic with a lot to say, and it does command the required presence to ensure that audiences listen and become enchanted with its presentation. The message gets a bit lost in the third act, and this is where much of the excess runtime could have been trimmed, but Straight Outta Compton is nonetheless a powerful and memorable biopic that is realized very well.
Needless to say, if you’re a fan of N.W.A., or hip-hop/rap music in general, then seeing Straight Outta Compton is a no-brainer. N.W.A. was one of the driving forces behind the entire rap music genre as we understand it, and thus, Straight Outta Compton effectively chronicles a key turning point in our musical culture, with all of the highs and a solid chunk of the lows effectively captured. Some of it is hard to watch, but all of it is rewarding.
The movie doesn’t completely escape a few biased viewpoints, and as far as a lengthy chronicle of N.W.A. goes, several well-known pieces of the story aren’t featured in the movie, but for the most part, Straight Outta Compton is arguably the best N.W.A. biopic we could have asked for in many respects. Its story is engaging, its performances are gripping, and its reverence for the material is highly commendable, even to non-fans of N.W.A.’s brand of music.
Have there been better biopics, even regarding musical artists? Well, yes, but Straight Outta Compton still stands proud on the cinematic stage, rallying and reveling in audience cheers as it stands triumphant with a nonfiction tale too captivating and powerful to ignore.
Straight Outta Compton inevitably omits some facts, and romanticizes others, but it's still an engrossing and powerfully told N.W.A. biopic that beautifully captures a musical and cultural turning point, and the flawed, complex men that made it happen.
THE GOOD STUFF
Story is powerful, engaging and reverent
Jason Mitchell owns most of the movie as Eazy-E
Sharp, challenging direction that perfectly captures the times