Rappers Take Their Work Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton tells the tale of the rise and eventual disintegration of the rap group NWA. In 1986, a DJ named Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins) struggles to make a living doing what he loves. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) wants to put his money to good use, and put his days as a low-level drug dealer to an end. Teenage poet O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) wants his words set to rap. The three join forces with Lorenzo "MC Ren" Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine "DJ Yella" Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.) and perform at a club in their Compton neighborhood, where the quintet gains a following. Eazy-E puts his money into recording the group and releasing it on the label he founded. The record becomes popular, and leads to a chance encounter with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a music business veteran who becomes their manager. With the help of Heller and a Dallas rapper called the DOC (Marlon Yates, Jr.), the group reaches listeners outside of Los Angeles, and land a bigger recording contract. In time, the quintet starts to call itself NWA.
Bit by bit, NWA connects with some mainstream listeners with their first two full-length releases and a concert tour. While their music and lyrics became an obvious source of controversy, the key players of NWA started to look at Jerry with suspicion. After a lengthy delay, Jerry finally offered Ice Cube a contract. Ice Cube decided to go solo instead. Dr. Dre receives an offer from Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) to have his legal team look over Jerry's deal with Dre. As a result, Dre also leaves the band and goes into business with Knight. Eazy-E starts to see the problems with Jerry's practices, which includes bounced checks and other unpaid bills. As he sees this, he reaches out to Ice Cube and a disenchanted Dr. Dre to reform NWA. Eazy-E, though, ignores other concerns as the reunion goes through the planning stages.
Straight Outta Compton, which is also the title of their debut album, is a solid musical biopic that shows that NWA's success came with a high price. At one point, Jerry explains to Eazy-E that the business of music comes with all sorts of costs, though never explaining how he would benefit from the things he did for the band. With regards to the music, I tend to share the views uttered in the film by music producer Jimmy Iovine (Mark Sherman). I like some rap, and understand much of it has an audience that differs from me. I no more favor this genre of music than I do country or opera. When NWA criticizes law enforcement in one of their most famous songs, they don't advocate any sort of hostile insurrection against the men who wear badges. They simply rap about the blatantly unfair treatment they and others receive that makes their hard lives even harder. Once success came, some in the group found themselves at odds with the others over their musical direction. With Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E's widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, serving as producers, the other members don't get much of the film's attention, nor does most of the group's misadventures come into play. The sceenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, however, never fails to be compelling. The direction from F. Gary Gray helps to show the rise and fall of a band whose influence continues to this day.
I enjoyed the lead performances from the young performers. Ice Cube's own son looks very much like his father as he plays a singer who wants to make career moves sensibly. His words capture the atmosphere of a life in Compton, such as the encounter with one officer proclaiming the police are the only gang who matters. While police and gang members seem to take a dim view of those who are not their own, Ice Cube finds business has a cruelty of its own in the wrong hands. In one scene, the rapper loses a royalty check because he refuses to sign the contract Jerry prepared for him. Hawkins impresses as Dr. Dre, a young man first committed to making a living as a DJ, then discovering the voice within himself as he develops as an artist. I also enjoyed Mitchell as Eazy-E, who saw a life of dealing for the dead end that it was, and put his trust in the music and in Jerry. Giamatti delivers as usual as Jerry, who watches out for NWA as they face discrimination and resistance, but watches out more for Jerry Heller than for anyone else.
Straight Outta Compton brings the story of NWA to life in Hollywood-like fashion. The film emphasizes the best parts of the group's initial run, but the film also looks at the problems that still exist in America today. Many Americans think that if they don't like the message someone has, or the image someone presents, that person should not matter under any circumstances. Five young men made music that celebrated the good where they lived, but it also took a hard look at the place where so many bad things happened on both sides of the law. Compton will always be a part of the surviving members of NWA, but their voices made it clear they wanted something better. They wanted a way to make a better life, and not live in a state of hopelessness and stagnation.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Straight Outta Compton 3.5 stars. An LA story from the 'hood.