The Ninjabot

Film Review: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)

Posted on August 13, 2015 at 10:31 am by Dylan Reynolds

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a “paint by numbers” music biopic that serves as both the origin story of the “World’s Most Dangerous Group” and also a sort-of “Cliff Notes version of history” for hip-hop and Straight-Outta-Comptonthe sub genre that was originally dubbed “street/ reality rap” but would become more commonly known as Gangsta Rap.

Anyone growing up in this era (mid-late 80s/ early 90s) no doubt remembers the controversy surrounding the music and its forbearers Eazy E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre (who are the main focus of the film). During this time many were convinced that Gangsta Rap and N.W.A. were “the worst things ever” and their crass music was “poisoning the minds” of kids across middle class America. As such- the music industry and the artists met the wrath of conservative/ liberal politicians and “social crusaders” such as Tipper Gore and C. Dolores Tucker for promoting violence, misogyny, and various forms of anti-social behavior.

The flip side of that coin would recognize that Gangsta Rap was the rebel/ protest music of the day- shedding light on the social and economic hardships/ inequalities/ injustices of poor and lower class neighborhoods (mostly African American) during the height of “Reagonomics”, street gang violence, the crack epidemic, the “Drug War”, and the bubbling tensions between aggressive/ abusive cops and the “communities of color” they served.

The themes and subject matter of this “reality music” would prove to be prophetic as these tensions culminated in the ’92 L.A. Riots/ Uprising. And today this form of “artistic expression” has all but been cemented in relevance due to some high profile instances of law enforcement abuse/ misjudgment- which has proven what Ice Cube had been saying all along; they were “underground reporters” who told mainstream society what was going on in the neighborhoods they ignored or disregarded.

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The film STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON begins by introducing the five young men who would forever change the landscape of popular music. Eazy E is a “street entrepreneur” (i.e. drug dealer), Dr. Dre is a neighborhood DJ, Ice Cube writes furiously in his “book of rhymes”, DJ Yella works alongside Dre at a local nightclub, and MC Ren is an aspiring rapper that hangs out with Eazy.

Dre approaches Eazy with the idea to invest some of his “profits” to record a demo for a track called “Boyz in the Hood”- with lyrics written by Cube and the song intended to be performed by some East Coast rappers with some clout. Eazy agrees to invest in the recording session- which doesn’t go well- resulting in the talent storming out of the room. Desperate to make the most out of the money they already spent for the tapes and studio rental- they convince Eazy (with no prior experience) to step into the booth and deliver the rhymes. After some coaching the track is finished:

The song “Boyz in the Hood” becomes a big success in the local L.A. market- which captures the attention of Jerry Heller- a music manager with experience going as far back as the early days of rock & roll. Heller thinks there is potential in this new “reality rap” stuff and with Eazy they officially form Ruthless Records.

The four other members of N.W.A. gather in the recording studio and begin work on what would become the seminal Gangsta Rap album “Straight Outta Compton”. While working on the record they have a run-in with some police who abuse their authority (and as the movie would have us believe) inspires them to make perhaps the quintessential N.W.A. track “Fuck The Police”:

As with all music biopics- after the “rise to fame” portion the second phase of the film details the “fall from grace”. In this case the artists don’t become less popular- quite the opposite- but they do begin to turn against one another due to money disputes and whether Eazy/ Heller are paying the other members their fair share.

The first to leave the group is Ice Cube who links up with the East Coast production team The Bomb Squad (who produced music for the political activist rap group PUBLIC ENEMY) to record his solo debut album “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” which becomes heralded as a classic.

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Meanwhile- the remaining members of N.W.A. release their second studio album entitled “EFIL4ZAGGIN”- which is significant for showcasing the growth of Dre’s producing skills- which become more soulful and infused with 70s R&B samples (the style is given the label “G Funk”). The album also takes some pot shots at former member Ice Cube- who retorts with the song “No Vaseline”- which goes down in the annals of hip-hop has one of the harshest “diss/ battle rap” records ever made:

Next to leave N.W.A. is Dr. Dre- who gets corralled by Suge Knight- a former football linebacker/ bodyguard and apparent “shot caller” for the Bloods street gang (and the clear “villain” of the film). tumblr_mlmrmr2oqn1qzbwkjo1_1280Together they form the notorious rap label DEATH ROW RECORDS. Knight is able to “release” Dr. Dre from his contract with Ruthless by literally beating the crap out of Eazy E and forcing him to sign Dre over. Eazy contemplates retaliation against Suge Knight but he is talked out of it by Heller- who has come to regard Eazy as a son.

The rest of the movie turns into a kaleidoscope montage of the early 90s West Coast rap scene focused around the making of Dre’s classic solo album “The Chronic”- complete with cameos from the likes of Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. But soon Dre starts to realize that something is “rotten in Denmark” and grows weary of Suge Knight and the cloud of violence and criminality that hovers over the label.

Meanwhile- Eazy’s wife exposes him to the fact that this whole time Jerry Heller has indeed been “misappropriating funds” and essentially robbing him blind. Eazy confronts Heller- who denies and tries nwa_trailer_01to justify/ explain that what he did was just “how business is done”. Eazy fires Heller and then reaches out to his former friends and they discuss plans to reunite and make another N.W.A. record.

But these plans are cut short when Eazy is diagnosed with AIDS and tragically dies at the age of 31. The movie ends with a moment of “triumph and redemption” as Dre breaks ties with Suge and Death Row Records to form his own label- which would bring him further platitudes of success and fortune within the music industry and beyond.

This first act is when STAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is at it’s best- charting the “rags to riches” and underdog struggle of these men who literally come out of nowhere to make music that turns heads and brings them global attention. The first 30 or so minutes of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON are the most joyous, funny, and heart felt. After which the middle portion of the movie at times feels like a collection of deleted scenes from WOLF OF WALL STREET full of sex, drugs, and hardcore Gangsta Rap.

The source material for STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is rich and full of “Shakespearean level drama” but the movie never gets as deep as what one can glean from a few Wikapedia articles. The acting ranges 619780357b12c9e7399da94df64bf6dffrom serviceable- a few decent performances and a couple pretty good one’s- with the standouts being Jason Mitchell as Eazy E and Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller.

But the script seems to be rushed and “over-stuffed” while trying to hit all the major “milestones”. Thus some of the dialogue/ scenes feel forced with little semblance of subtext and at times reminds me of something you would see on an E True Hollywood Story or one of those Lifetime “unauthorized” biographies.

Another let down is that the movie seemed to have the potential to make a statement about why this music was so relevant then as it is today when it comes to police brutality. Or even more broadly how the treatment and perception African American men has remained unequal in this country since practically its inception. Of course this could have steered the film into being overwrought and preachy- but on the other sraight-outta-compton-smp_612x380_1hand the filmmakers do seem to layer these themes in the first half- before giving way to the “struggles of fame and fortune” for the rest of its running time.

My theory is that due to the real life individuals producing the film (Cube, Dre, and Eazy’s wife Tomica Wright)- it’s unable to choose “a voice” and instead it becomes a standard biopic where everyone comes off looking pretty decent (well, except for Suge Knight). It’s frustrating because STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON has all the ingredients to be a great film but instead settles for being “pretty good to okay”.

That said- the movie looks great and when it focuses on the actual making of the music it is a lot of fun (as mentioned- the first act is the best). If you’re a fan of the music/ era (which I am) there’s plenty of stuff in here to enjoy and it is sure to be worth repeat viewings (I can see myself buying this on Blu Ray). And even if you’re not a fan I think one would come away with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what the Gangsta/ Reality Rap genre was trying to achieve and impressed by what five guys from Compton managed to pull off.

As hip-hop’s first “historical epic”- STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON can be deemed a success and is sure to pave the way for future biopics that will hopefully delve deeper into what made the people and music of hip-hop and Gangsta Rap be seen as both poets/ monsters, political activists/ smut peddlers, visionary trailblazers/ and subjects of ire.

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