Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton
Director: F. Gary Gray
Reviewed: 27 September 2015
I grew up in the era of this film, but I was a bit young for appreciating its music fully or having the income to buy cassettes on my own. However, I left the theater invigorated and electrified by the dynamic filmmaking and the attempt (mostly successful) to capture a time and place and group experience like the rise of NWA and gangster rap in the late 80's, early 90's, and I have nothing but respect for the craftsmanship of F. Gary Gray and the screenwriters in working this origin story in telling the rise and fall of multiple lead characters into a coherent, powerful film. Where the film lacks in conviction, it more than makes up in charismatic performances, stagings of concerts and songs, and fire. I think the film, more than any other I have seen recently, crystallizes a moment in time that is still ongoing: the powerful systems of oppression and institutional racism and cruelty that can lead to the provocative song lyrics of "F*** the police."
The film swirls around the triumvirate of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) with the story of the formation of their group, its success, and its aftermath which still echoes in our world today, nearly a quarter century later. There are moments of Eazy-E leaping over rooftops, escaping a police phalanx juxtaposed against Ice Cube getting assaulted by racist police officers in his front yard in full view of his outraged and impotent parents who can only stand and watch juxtaposed against Dr. Dre's pushing forward of inner-city stories and raps at a club when the music scene and establishment has yet to validate the emerging form of music. Gray's film is at its best in its swirling nature that pursues its analysis of the ethos of the time. Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) gets involved as the group's powerful manager which leads to inevitable conflict. And that's the film's weakest point. It seems afraid or unable to completely demonize Eazy-E's relationship with Jerry, which is portrayed as obviously insulting and unfair to the talents of everyone else in the super-group. It does not know what it wants to do with their relationship, how these two men found each other and used each other, and by the ending of the film, it winds up being inconclusive and strange instead of meaningful. I am also less sure about the meandering into Suge Knight as a devil-figure, which I cared less about in light of the lead characters.
There's something pretty magical about trying to capture Ice Cube walking into the studio with lyrics that will surely lead to national controversy. There's something pretty magical about watching artists craft and create songs that we know now in 2015 as masterpieces. At some point, someone sang that song for the first time as a demo or recorded it over and over again before it worked, and Gray does that well here, with people listening to each other's performances and soaking it in. Those quiet moments of listening and performing in a studio resonate with me the most. There's cameos by Snoop Dogg and Tupac, and the focus seems to be on documenting moments of discovery, moments that resonate with audience who know those songs by heart. At some point, every song that we've ever loved and recited and memorized was once a demo and an experiment in a small room of peers and friends trying to find its way out to the world.
Straight Outta Compton's musical scenes are stellar, and the energy driving the film is palpable. The scenes of police violence are resonant and relevant in a way that underscores where we are as a country today in 2015, making a film about the early 1990's inflecting 2015's America. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is the standout here playing his father, but I really found all the performances captivating by relative newcomers (to me). The electricity and fervor with which these artists create and the world that fueled the creation of their art was alive to me, and I think Gray has made a marvelous film deserving of critical success and the strong popularity that it has already received.