I was always into rap music, right from the beginning. From the first time I heard artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to UTFO, I felt an awakening inside of me—the pulsing, throbbing beat of the street. The electricity of popping funky fresh rhymes and dropping dope beats originated from the inner city. And somehow this resonated with with me—how could it not? I grew up on the mean fairways of South Florida; my private school uniform was my personal cage. Hip-hop became a passion and escape from the well-landscaped hell that was my youth.
N.W.A. was impossible to ignore. Dropping sick rhymes and pushing the media’s buttons felt effortless. While there were other hip-hop acts preaching the truth about inequality, no one felt as dangerous or as raw as N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. The movie “Straight Outta Compton” chronicles the group’s rise, and doesn’t feel nearly as intimidating or dynamic. It’s a good movie, but it never quite gets to great.
I’ll admit: I was nervous when I heard they were making a movie about N.W.A. Musical biopics are such formulaic affairs: Introduce the artist in question, show the struggle they went through to achieve success, and then spend a lot of time trying to provide the backstory of how their most famous songs were written. God, I hate those scenes—the one where the musician has that “light bulb” moment, the creative epiphany that leads to their big hit. I always picture John C. Reilley in the hilarious and underrated “Walk Hard” looking up into the sky at the moment of creative inception.
There are several hilarious moments like this throughout “Straight Outta Compton,” like when our heroes are unfairly harassed by the LAPD only to write their famous “Fuck the Police” 5 minutes later. Movies like this have to compress a lot of history, but there are so many scenes that take place in the studio as a litany of hit songs are conceived and recorded in nanoseconds. One scene shows Dr. Dre playing a keyboard as Snoop Dogg stumbles and starts freestyling every verse to “Nothin’ But a G-Thang.” Eazy-E is moments away from dying, and his friends stop by to drop off a tape of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Yes, we get it. These guys were smart, talented and prolific. The movie can’t go 5 minutes without reminding the audience. The filmmakers seem more motivated by establishing an honest portrayal of the characters.
For example, at one point in the movie Ice Cube’s wife walks up and says to her husband, “How’s ‘Friday’ coming along?” referencing the comedy he would one day make. I think most people familiar with Ice Cube would be familiar with “Friday.” Apparently, the filmmakers wanted everyone to be sure they knew that Ice Cube was responsible for the comedy classic.
“Straight Outta Compton” is a ridiculously entertaining movie that tries a little bit too hard to stress the relevance of the artists portrayed. I’m sure there are people out there who aren’t familiar with pop culture mainstays like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, and equally unfamiliar with their contributions to music and film. Director F. Gary Gray (“Friday”) seems to have some kind of strange obsession with making sure to cover every connection and contribution by shoehorning in strange references at awkward times.
The movie works best when it focuses on our young trio of artists. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) are talented performers who really do an admirable job of being as charismatic and engrossing as their real-life counterparts.
Paul Giamatti brings gravitas to what could have been just another cookie-cutter villain role. My only real complaint about the character portrayals is the kid gloves they have been treated with. They’re all angelic. Once again, the idea of legacy seems more important than the concept of honesty.
Even with these criticisms, I still really enjoyed “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s a great slice of music history with some solid performances and great music. The movie moves, never lingering too long on any one event. It starts out fast and never slows down, sprinkling equal time to the characters, their music and their meteoric rise to success. While the musical biopic has been stale, “Straight Outta Compton” manages to stay fresh.