Straight Outta Compton also happens to be straight outta current headlines. Opening the same week as more inner-city civil unrest unfolds on the first anniversary of the riots in Ferguson, MO that followed Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer, the showbiz biopic that charts the rise, fall, breakup, tragedies and social impact of gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. is uncannily timed.
The fierce power of their lyrics in anthems like “F**k The Police” actually seems now to be more prescient and hold more resonance than even in 1988, when this local Compton rap group broke through to the big time. But as I say in video review (click the link above), the story of the evolution of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E into controversial musical superstars is a human one that doesn’t let up from start to finish, despite a near 2 1/2-hour running time.
On the surface what director F. Gary Gray has wrought appears to be following the standard formula of many showbiz biopics, but this one is loaded with such urgency and explosive energy it seems to unfold almost like a documentary. Certainly the material is there for a compelling story, and Gray, blessed with an exceptional young cast, makes it pop throughout. It’s all here: The ferocious rise of a group of L.A. natives who live so close to the seat of power in the music business, yet could not have seemed further away from its closed gates, until simply talent, timing, and a hungry rock manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) helped to make it reality. The film charts that rise, with richly produced musical sequences that should have moviegoers on their feet just as they were at the original concerts, and then the inevitable in-fighting leading to solo careers, a breakup, a personal tragedy, betrayal, revenge and all the stuff of good drama. This movie has it all, motherf***a. It should be said that cops don’t exactly come off great in this film, but it also may offer some historical context for the continuing conflict between parts of the black community and the police, and perhaps inspire some useful dialogue.
Ultimately though, this is as I said, a uniquely human story and a very American one in its own way. The film has an authenticity and honesty often missing from these kinds of music biopics and that may be due to the fact that the producers include both N.W.A. founders Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and they have clearly made sure the screenplay credited to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the latter who wrote the story with Alan Wenkus and S. Leigh Savidge, gets the truth – at least as they see it and remember it.
The casting is simply exceptional beginning with Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing the spitting image of his father and doing him justice. Equally fine is Corey Hawkins, who maintains a level of authority and even dignity as Dre. But as Eazy-E, Jason Mitchell is the real acting find, delivering a complex portrait of someone who stumbled into the business and emerged perhaps more street-wise in the game than anyone else, that is until personal tragedy intervenes and he is diagnosed with AIDS. Mitchell, if there is any justice, should be considered for a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Other members of the group don’t get nearly the screen time as this trio, but Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella has his moments. Giamatti is just fine in another rock star mentor-type role that he has been playing lately. Also of note is the dead-on impersonation of the terrifying Suge Knight by R. Marcos Taylor.
In addition to Cube and Dr. Dre, producers include Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein and Gray. Universal Pictures releases the film widely Friday, and at Monday night’s gigantic premiere (one of the biggest a studio has thrown in some time) at L.A. Live’s 7000-seat Microsoft Theatre, Cube praised the studio’s Donna Langley as someone who should be considered “the sixth member of N.W.A.” The award-worthy film is certainly another feather in her cap, and for the studio, in a banner year like no other.
Do you plan to see Straight Outta Compton? Let us know what you think.