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Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Updated on August 26, 2015
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NWA - N*****s with attitude - they were dangerous, violent, and they made excellent music. Even for those of us born before they hit the scene, it seems hard to believe that the NWA released their first album so long ago that their story now seems like history. After all, founding member Ice Cube is still a relevant celebrity with a movie that came to theaters around the same time. The fact that they are more contemporary than many subjects of biopics is also why their story deserves to be told. They were at the forefront of a genre that is still popular today so people do deserve to see how it all began.

Most music biopics focus on one artist such as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash - even Oliver Stone's The Doors was primarily about Jim Morrison. Straight Outta Compton takes the unique approach of following a full group. Straight Outta Compton begins with the band's formative years in the streets of Compton. They faced crime and racism on such a daily basis that they incorporated their feelings about these things into angry, aggressive and profanity-laden rap music. After performing at local clubs, they are discovered by a white producer who knows more about bands such as Styx and Elton John. Under his record label, NWA becomes bigger and starts releasing more albums. However, with bigger success comes bigger trouble - especially with the law. Contract disputes cause Ice Cube to go solo. Never being guys to keep their opinions to themselves, both the remaining members of NWA and Ice Cube take viscous digs at each other. That ends up being the least of their problems when the manager tries to screw over the remaining members while the Rodney King story turns the racism the group faced in their prime into a national concern. While Dr. Dre moves onto solo projects and works with hip hop icons such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, and Ice Cube moves onto a solo and film career, the members do discuss the possibility of reuniting. However, reality comes crashing down hard when Easy-E contracts AIDS as a result of his hedonistic lifestyle. Easy-E passes away before the reunion can happen.

NWA in the film
NWA in the film | Source

Suffice to say, Straight Outta Compton has A LOT of story in it. Despite having so much story to tell, the film pulls it off - Everyone's story feels balanced. With so many characters to focus on, the film never feels as if one character is favored over another. If there is one nitpick in the film, there are certain gaps in the story. The film accurately depicts Ice Cube's transition from violent rapper to family man actor. However, with little explanation in the film, this seems like an unusual jump. According to IMDB, the original cut of the film was three-and-a-half hours so this might explain some of the gaps. However, the cuts may have still been for the better. Even though the film runs two-and-a-half hours, the pace is pretty breazy with a hardly a dull moment to be found. There are a few historical inaccuracies such as Tupac recording "California Love" a little too early. However, the story is told well enough to forgive these little details.

One of the things that makes Straight Outta Compton work is its tone. With so much going on, the film is roller coaster ride of various emotions. However, the filmmakers know when to play the right emotional cards. Scenes of NWA members facing crime and racism are shot almost documentary-style, lacking the maudlin sentimentality that remove their punch. One particularly tense scene involves NWA being confronted by police while on break from recording. The lack of music and raw feel of the scene make this scene particularly memorable in the way it forces the viewer to absorb the scene.

Straight Outta Compton is unapologetic in its depiction of the decadent and violent lifestyle that these men lived. They sleep with women, stand up to police threats and have no issue using violence of their own. However, the movie does know when to play the heartstrings such as when Dr. Dre's brother dies and when Easy-E succumbs to AIDS. These scenes are not only effective, but they also work as a reminder that no matter what they did, these men had problems and tragedies, and even that some of their choices could catch up with them. Having directed funny films as the hilarious Friday (which is mentioned in this film) and The Italian Job remake which has some good comic relief, director F. Gary Gray knows how to bring the funny. While the film is not laugh-a-minute, there are some humorous moments as the members of NWA joke around with each other - such as one funny dialogue when they discuss being okay with people destroying their albums as long as they're buying them.

Recommending a film about musicians can be tough since one's enjoyment of the movie is pretty integral on whether or not one likes the band. Anyone who enjoys the music of NWA or has an interest in rap owes it to themselves to at least check this one out. In addition to recording the music, the film recreates concerts ranging from the band's early club days to the height of their popularity. The film recreates the excitement and the tension that something may go wrong of early NWA concerts. Musical tastes may vary, however, there are still reasons for anyone to enjoy watching men who work on their craft. There is a great - and humorous - scene where the group toils over the delivery of one line.

A hurdle for ANY biopic is finding actors that properly represent the film's subject.Sometimes the filmmakers are lucky enough that there are actors - famous or not - who were just born to play another person - Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman. Sometimes a little makeup is necessary such as Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Sometimes the resemblance is not 100% accurate, but the actor just owns the part anyway - see Tom Hanks as Walt Disney or Michael Douglas as Liberace. However, there are times where stars are entirely miscast - see an all-star miscasting in Lee Daniels' the Butler.

Straight Outta Compton took a rare and somewhat risky move of casting relative unknowns to play the members of NWA. O'Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father - Ice Cube - in his film debut. Although he has a lighter complexion, Jackson is believable as his father. The use of unknown actors works because these are relatively contemporary figures - contemporary enough that they were on MTV. So seeing recognizable faces in these roles might have been too distracting. One odd casting choice is the actor who plays Snoop Dogg. His impression of the rapper is DEAD ON, but he hardly resembles the man. Then again, the movie is not about Snoop Dogg, and he is in very little of the film, but during those few scenes he appears, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

NWA in their prime
NWA in their prime | Source

In conclusion, Straight Outta Compton is an excellent biopic. The film is brutally honest in its depictions not only of the hip hop pioneers but of problems that remain relevant to this day. The film is a must-see for fans of not only NWA but also hip hop in general. Even non-fans may enjoy the artistry, the struggle and the emotional struggles that the real NWA faced.

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