Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton
By Ben Gruchow
August 20, 2015
In a sense, Straight Outta Compton sits companionably enough alongside last month’s Amy as a portrait of the musician as distorted through the lens of the media and the public. N.W.A., a late-80s/early-90s rap group comprised of this film’s subjects, is woven into the developmental fabric of the rap and hip-hop industry. Their music is turbulent, galvanizing stuff: the work of artists at their most uncompromising. To the media, and the members of the public content to take stories at face value, they were mostly notable for the growth of “gangsta rap”, and for perpetuating a lifestyle glorifying violence and objectifying women. N.W.A.’s first album, which shares this movie’s title, received critical praise upon release, but it took several years for that recognition - for its emotional volatility and immediacy as much as for its production - to make its way to the parts of the public that weren’t already on board.
Now we have this feature, which charts the course of N.W.A.’s rise to fame with stolidity and evenness. In structure and rhythm, it adheres to a fairly traditional biography rubric: you may not know exactly when the story will progress from worldwide fame to infighting and strife, or what tone that event will necessarily take, but you can feel the screenplay being shaped to fit the framework. It takes little risks in this sense, and much of its time is occupied with observing the crucial points of this structure.
If this were it, if Straight Outta Compton had just given us a token biopic structure and nothing else - especially at an indulgent 147-minute runtime - it would be disastrous. It’s not: What director F. Gary Gray has done here is used a recognizable and even predictable narrative template as support for documenting the emergence of a new, utterly destabilizing and unpredictable group and a new type of artist. In doing so, he’s also added an important angle and factor to an ongoing discussion about race and the abuse of power. The movie is effective, moving at times, unsettling at many others, owing to what happens around the margins of the story.
The film’s performances are all of a piece, completely inhabiting of their characters, and three of them are magnificent: Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. embody Dr. Dre and Ice Cube note-perfectly as a collection of shifting emotional states, both of them acting and reacting to the many events and setbacks and crises without stepping wrong once. With Jackson, the physical resemblance to his father helps. Hawkins has a more difficult task to pull off, in portraying an individual who generally ends up as middleman, and he does so with utter conviction. And while I am uncertain if N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller existed and acted in reality quite in the way he’s presented here, I have no doubts about what Paul Giamatti does with his cinematic iteration. By turns weary and brittle, he serves as a voice in the ear of the major characters, and Giamatti is remarkable at communicating notes of protagonist and antagonist to every sentence.