Not only is Straight Outta Compton a vivid snapshot of mid-1980’s South Los Angeles, it feels like something that might be percolating in modern inner cities. Director F. Gary Gray’s provocative film soars when it sticks to the vibe and pulse of the nascent “gangsta rap” movement. When it delves into serious drama, however, the results are decidedly mixed. Ultimately, the incendiary music and infectious defiance push Straight Outta Compton over the top, both literally and figuratively.
The power of music is its immediacy. It captures a moment in time and allows you to experience the emotions over and over again. For black teens growing up in the South Los Angeles region in the ‘80s, the predominating emotions were anger and frustration. The rampant drug trade, fueled by the recent infusion of crack cocaine from South America, placed African-Americans directly in the crosshairs of a desperate and increasingly-reactionary police force.
A more aggressive aesthetic arose in these neighborhoods to combat the unrelenting despair; a musical offshoot of the thriving hip hop scene that came to be known as “gangsta rap.” Straight Outta Compton follows the formation and disintegration of one of the pioneering forces in this movement, N.W.A. (N****z Wit Attitudes). The formation and ascension of N.W.A., which comprises the film’s electric first half, is an exhilarating celebration of raunchy humor, unbridled testosterone, and massive beats. The film’s second half, however, barely holds together, as the filmmakers ratchet up the emotional manipulation. Let’s just say it’s fitting that the painfully-earnest Afterschool Special series gets a shout-out in Straight Outta Compton.
When Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) co-founded Ruthless Records in 1986, it’s unlikely they expected the seismic shift they were about to setoff. With massive musical talents like Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) crafting brutally-honest lyrics, it was only a matter of time before the money started rolling in. The early scenes with Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E writing the first tracks for their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, are some of the best we’ve seen in 2015. Director Gray (himself hailing from Compton) brings the frustration of the streets directly into the recording studio. This sense of urgency, along with the naturally-dry humor of Dre, Cube and Eazy-E, is the kind of giddy exhilaration that comes from unadulterated creativity.
When the band hits the road in 1989, Gray breaks out all the hits. This is some of the best concert footage we’ve seen, complete with booming bass and flawless performances from the actors. There are also enough lens flares to give J.J. Abrams a headache, but that’s a small price to pay in order to enjoy this music the way it was intended to be heard. The debauchery and comradery feel like a genuine escape from the racial tensions exploding around South Los Angeles. It’s also a great complement to the growing schism within the group, as Eazy-E and Heller, in particular, start playing fast and loose with the ballooning profits.
The story of N.W.A.’s ultimate downfall is well documented. Ice Cube departed over royalties (or lack thereof) in 1989, with Dr. Dre and the remaining members quickly following suit. Gray and his screenwriters, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, labor far too long over these sordid and largely uninteresting details. These characters, whose defiance and irreverence were so enticing on the way up, become nothing more than petulant millionaires as they splinter apart. The filmmakers (including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube as producers) are too emotionally attached to the material to acknowledge the obvious faults and contradictions of their characters. When Cube creatively “re-arranges” a record producer’s office, for instance, it’s dismissed as a gag rather than a temper tantrum. The emotional attachment to the material has compromised the filmmaker’s objectivity, which essentially kills any chance for meaningful character arcs or dramatically-satisfying resolutions.
Oddly enough, the emotional core of the film revolves around Eazy-E and Heller, who develop a bizarre father-son dynamic that leads to the demise of N.W.A. Mitchell and Giamatti are more than up to the task, as they fill each scene with an unsettling combination of distrust and unconditional love. Hawkins and Jackson (the real-life son and spot-on match for Ice Cube) are also top-notch, though the subplot with Dre’s little brother is a ponderous distraction. R. Marcos Taylor gives an appropriately-terrifying performance as Death Row Records co-founder and all-around scary dude, Suge Knight. Every scene feels like an explosion waiting to happen when Suge is around, and he’s about the only reason to stay interested in the film’s closing act.
When Straight Outta Compton stays focused on the cultural roots and artistic motivations of the N.W.A. crew, it reaches breathlessly-entertaining heights. We pull back the curtain on their tumultuous creative process, and then watch the upheaval as their message resonates with a previously-oblivious America. When things get personal, however, the provocative energy dissipates. It’s easy to overlook these flaws when confronted by the raw brilliance of the music, but they prevent the film from transcending the genre. Still, at a time when so many cities in America are experiencing civil unrest, it’s important to show disenfranchised kids that their voices can still be heard. If Straight Outta Compton becomes the rallying cry for a new artistic expression of this growing frustration, it has more than done its job.