Review: N.W.A film ‘Straight Outta Compton’ starts fast but runs out of gas
Alternately riveting and wearying, up-to-the-minute relevant as well as self-mythologizingly self-indulgent — as much of a heroic origins story as anything out of the Marvel factory — “Straight Outta Compton” ends up juggling more story lines and moods than it can handle.
It took 13 years to reach the screen, required the efforts of four credited writers and runs a meandering 2 hours and 22 minutes, so it might be expected that “Straight Outta Compton” is all over the map, and it is.
This was perhaps inevitable. To make a film version of the story of N.W.A, the massively influential Compton-spawned rap group whose full name and best known song are still too incendiary for a family newspaper to publish, director F. Gary Gray had to contend with a panoply of conflicting pressures.
Those include tending to both the hard-core image of the group (lots of weapons, lots more partially clothed women) and the personal agendas of former band members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eazy-E, all of whom are hands-on executive producers.
And how do you handle potentially litigious characters like rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, who recently pleaded not guilty to a murder charge in an incident related to the film, and controversial ex-N.W.A manager Jerry Heller, who has already stated that on opening day “I will be there in the front row with my lawyer.”
Given that the script (credited to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff based on a story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Berloff) reflects all these swirling demands, it’s fortunate that director Gray has a history with the key players, having made music videos for both Dre and Cube and directing the latter’s Hollywood breakout, “Friday.”
Gray sees to it that the film starts out strongly, bringing the kind of energy and anger against authority that lit up N.W.A’s music to what is in truth a surprisingly familiar tale. For it’s ironic that the most effective parts of “Straight Outta Compton” are its most standard.
This story of a group of disadvantaged but talented young men from the same neighborhood fighting their way out of straitened circumstances to international pop music stardom has in outline a lot in common with the saga of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as related in “Jersey Boys” — though partisans of neither project will be happy with the comparison.
Back we go to late-1980s Compton, where cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s gritty yet romanticized images introduce us to N.W.A’s members, with special emphasis on the big three whom the film posits as crucial to its eventual success.
First comes Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), a man with a head for business shown finessing his way around a drug deal gone bad. Just maybe, he starts to think, there might be an easier way to make a living.
Making a living is the last thing on the mind of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), a dazzling turntable wizard who lives for his music to such an extent that his mother worries that he won’t amount to anything. (Having the last laugh on a whole string of naysayers is a persistent theme here.)
As for O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube (and played by the rapper’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), he lives to be writing what came to be known as gangsta rap but that he calls reality rap, filled with lyrics alive to the constant drumbeat of police harassment in his Compton neighborhood.
These words and the situations that called them forth do not, unfortunately, come off as quaint reminders of a bygone era. Rather, given the disturbing headlines from around the country, quite the opposite is true, giving sections of the film an inescapable relevance.
Despite the scorn of a club owner who tells them “trust me, this reality rap stuff isn’t going to work, 20 years from now you’re going to thank me,” these three join with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to form N.W.A, which leads Dre to ask Eazy-E whether he ever thought about financing a record. (One of the film’s more charming sequences has Dr. Dre coaching the vocally shy Eazy-E through the recording of “Cruisin Down Tha Street.”)
It’s at this point that Heller, he of the silver tongue with hair to match, enters the picture. As played by Paul Giamatti — fresh from a similar role in the Beach Boys drama “Love & Mercy” — Heller is the first music establishment figure to believe in the band. He becomes their manager and, along with Eazy-E, co-founds the group’s Ruthless Records label.
FOR THE RECORD
Aug. 13, 5:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a Beach Boys movie as “Love and Desire.” The correct title is “Love & Mercy.”
As N.W.A becomes more lucrative, however, success breeds dissension, and rancorous inside-baseball legal disputes with Heller and others both influence Cube and Dre to leave the group and cause “Straight Outta Compton” to run out of gas.
To its credit, the film attempts to portray Heller evenhandedly, even including a scene where he stands up for N.W.A to hostile police, insisting that “these are not gangbangers, they’re artists.”
Finally, though, free-floating resentment against Heller and other figures casts a shadow over everything, and scenes of special pleading and self-justification inflate the running time to no dramatic purpose. Grievances about money and contracts, whether justified or not, rarely make for compelling cinema.
“Our art is a reflection of our reality,” Ice Cube says to one of the film’s numerous fatuous journalists, and that’s a fair assessment of “Straight Outta Compton” itself. The group’s members have become wealthy and influential enough to put their own vision of their lives on screen, and for better or worse, that’s what they’ve done.
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