By Roy Trakin.
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)
Fellow South Central L.A. native F. Gary Gray’s fine music biopic of the groundbreaking gangsta rap group is an origin story that confirms the idea history is literally told by the survivors – both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were very much hands-on with the production.
That intimate involvement is both the movie’s strength and weakness – it gets all the details right on the one hand, but also glosses over some of the ugliness on the other. For the most part, though, Gray sticks to the facts, musical and otherwise – the samples from the vinyl albums the young Dr. Dre carries around in his DJ crate finds its way into N.W.A.’s society-baiting narratives in the form of semi-obscure ‘80s funk and R&B like Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame, Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Parliament-Funkadelic or Zapp.
It’s in moments like these that you realize N.W.A. was just as important for their sound as their politics, with Corey Hawkins’ soft-spoken but hot-tempered Dre slyly in the background – just as he is on the Compton soundtrack – guiding Jason Mitchell’s uncanny Eazy-E through his faltering rap on “Boyz N’ the Hood” line by line, or encouraging O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s tribute to his old man Ice Cube to take the volatile, politically charged “reality rap” lyrics he scribbled on the school bus from Compton to Woodland Hills up on the stage.
Those three performances are so pitch-perfect, you believe you’re watching the real thing, though shout-outs also go out to R. Marcos Taylor’s menacing Suge Knight, Keith Stanfield’s laconically spot-on Snoop Dogg and Marcc Rose’s brief glimpse of Tupac, while Neil Brown Jr.’s DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge’s MC Ren only pale because their characters aren’t quite as recognizable.
Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Jerry Heller – like his similarly bewigged turn as Eugene Landy in the also excellent Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy – tends to the caricature, though his passionate defense of the band, and his obvious affection for Eric Wright’s Eazy to tend to blunt the ultimate revelation he was stealing money from his charge all along.
Of course, it’s the same old story, a manager helps break you into stardom, only to be caught taking more than his share… or is just the artists getting greedy? That question hangs in the air, though again, because Dre and Cube are telling the story.
At two and a half hours, Straight Outta Compton is front-loaded – the performance recreations crackle with energy – but even the long, slow, bitter aftermath gains from the deterioration of Mitchell’s Eazy.
An urban legend, a tale of faith, a sign of the times, Straight Outta Compton gains its relevancy from current conditions, just as it achieved validation in the early ‘90s from Rodney King’s beating. All that anger and frustration has to find an outlet, and in this case it was rap. Almost three decades later, that story has been turned into a compelling film of ghetto-to-Hollywood, I-told-you-so redemption that, by all rights, should be at the top of critic’s lists when it comes to award season. If not, Fuck the Oscars…