Straight Outta Compton (2015) Review: Need. Watch. Again.
When it comes to biopics, they’re kind of the perfect combination of filmmaking. You take a character with a story interesting enough for a 120-minute run-time, and you imbue the legitimacy of being a true story. Suddenly your film has an immediate connection with its audience, being based in their reality. As with all things though, there’s a balance to be struck. You have to take a larger than life character, bring them down to their most human level, while still maintaining what makes them special.
‘8 Mile’ has a character, the most talented in his field, and uses the hardest parts of his life to showcase his relatable, crippling stage fright. On the other hand, ‘Lincoln’ takes one of the greatest presidents in America’s history and turns him into a bumbling old man, telling too many stories. Aside from that, in the information age where you can look up someone’s life story in an instant, justifying a biopic becomes more and more difficult.
That being said, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ establishes itself as the fourth film this year that defied my already high expectations. The story, of course, follows the N.W.A from their inception to their eventual dissolve, showcasing the true story of the rap group that ended up on the F.B.I watchlist. The movie actually opens up with a scene that is literally gangbusters. N.W.A member Eazy-E, played by Jason Mitchell, is entering into a drug deal about to go wrong at an unassuming house when suddenly, the police come ’round.
The phrase “excessive force” doesn’t even begin to describe what takes place, as a tank-like vehicle with a smiley face battering ram, accompanied by droves of police officers, tears down the front door. Eazy-E makes his way out by breaking the bathroom window and bam, the title card comes up. The scene not only establishes the character of Eazy-E, but also the environment that created these Niggaz With Attitudes.
The film follows the members, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren. While DJ Yella and MC Ren are in fact characters in the film, they’re ancillary at best. The real characters in the film are Dre, Cube, and E. We’re able to experience the story of the N.W.A through three different perspectives. Each one with their own individual arc. The movie never feels as though it’s selling anyone characters story short.
In fact, you could very well see three different films within ‘Straight Outta Compton’ each with its own themes and motivations. While this much character development causes the film to run at a seemingly daunting 147 minutes, it never feels as though there’s a scene that’s excessive. The length goes unnoticed because, like the tracks laid down by the N.W.A, the film has a nice…flow to it.
That flow is provided by the absolutely mesmerizing music scenes in this movie. From the early scenes showing Ice Cube performing at the club Dr. Dre DJs, to the later ones following the group on tour, every time the beat starts pounding the movie exhilarates you. These scenes are not simply there as commercials for 25-year-old rap songs, but they serve to showcase the group’s talent, as well as just how well, received they were. This is most evident in the scene in which Ice Cube instigates a banned performance of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ in front of a crowd infiltrated by the police department.
The way the crowd responds shows just how undeniably huge the group was. You feel as though you’re definitely getting a view into the past from a very front row seat. What I particularly liked about this movie was how much the music was a part of it. Aside from the performances themselves, the score is essentially a series of beats like you’d find in any great rap track. This gives the feeling of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ feeling like one big music video from the 90s.
This is in no doubt thanks to director F. Gary Gray’s work on music videos such as Ice Cube’s very own “It Was a Good Day”. He uses techniques you wouldn’t expect from a typical film director. The camera pans, in one steady shot, with as many elements as can be crammed into the frame. In a music video, this is done because there’s not a lot of time to tell as much as the story as you can visually. This style not only emphasizes the movie’s musical sensibilities but also cements it in the time setting. Why not make the movie set in the early 90s feel like you’re looking into that very era? Not only is it effective for the narrative, but F. Gary Gray gets some beautiful shots, just by the simple decision to use the frame as much as he can to tell his story.
As with any biopic, however, the film is lives or dies on whether or not the subject’s story comes across as believable. No one suffers this burden more than the actors chosen to portray them. Essentially they have to emote as much as possible while having to anticipate the audience’s pre-existing idea of how their character is supposed to look and sound. That being said, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is the best cast biopic I’ve ever seen.
Every actor is not only absolutely on point for the person they’re portraying, but the amount of talent that comes across from these folks is absolutely phenomenal. Especially impressive considering they’re all unknowns. The main cast is excellent, but the casting must also be commended for every other role that portrayed a real-life persona. This might sound purely cosmetic, but it helps to sell the story. Keith Stanfield sounds exactly like Snoop Dogg, R. Marcos Taylor has to be Suge Knight’s relative, and Marcc Rose officially confirms that Tupac is in fact not dead and has been going by the name Marcc Rose.
This doesn’t even touch on the main cast. Dr. Dre is played by Corey Hawkins, Eazy-E by Jason Mitchell and Ice Cube by O’Shea Jackson Jr. Every one of these guys brings their A-game, but the real standout in my eyes was O’Shea Jackson Jr. I can’t express just how convincing this casting was. Here you have the son of Ice Cube, playing a young Ice Cube as he grows to be the man who fathers the son of Ice Cube.
If you had told me that halfway through the movie Ice Cube asked to play himself for the rest of the film, I couldn’t outright say you were lying. Aside from suffering from the worst case of “You look JUST like your father” ever, Jackson Jr. was able to portray just what every scene was asking for him and more. His moments both on and off the mic are scene stealers to say the least.
Of course, it’s impossible to view the film outside of its social context. N.W.A, of course, was heavily influenced by the situation of police and gang violence in Compton. On the flip-side, the film shows just how influential they were in helping the voice of their community be heard. N.W.A not only mattered because their songs were cool to listen to, they also made an impact on the lives of themselves and so many others. This is all the more evident when the film reaches the point of the Rodney King riots and of course the crowd chants the N.W.A anthem Fuck tha Police. Regrettably, these scenes don’t feel like snapshots of 1990s violence but rather reflect the recent incidents of police violence that plague the news cycle today. As unfortunate as it is, this makes ‘Straight Outta Compton’ one of the most important films to come out in recent memory.
Another interesting thing the films does, is present scenes of various tones. At one moment you’ll have a scene that showcases a member of the group under the threat of violence from either the police or a gang or a police gang. (These are meant to incite your more rebellious side) Then the group will be enjoying their new-found fame with a 24-hour party, making you laugh and cheer. Not too long after, the film will take a step back and give a truly heart-breaking moment (I cried about 4 times).
The film presents all of these but there’s no point at which it feels tonally imbalanced. The underlying constant in each, and the real thing that makes the film work is the camaraderie between the Niggaz With Attitudes. That’s the real heart of the movie. Not the music, not the performances, but the interaction and chemistry between the characters. You never lose the sense that the bond they form as young, unsure artists from the streets, continues on no matter how revered they might become.
As much as I loved this film, it’s not without its flaws. While it’s something I could see myself stopping to watch every time I happen upon it on cable, I do think that the second act of the film drags by just a hair. That hair is one of the tiny grey hairs that your mom tries to pretend isn’t there and can be easily covered up by the more vibrant and lush parts of her- I’m getting lost in this metaphor. The point is, the movie from start to finish will leave you beyond satisfied and the middling issues of mine were easily overlooked. As far as biopics go, this is one of the best. Even though I already was excited for the film and interested in the subject matter, I can’t help but feel as though this is a film that arrives as a well-rounded piece of work that deserves to be seen by all.
Rating: Big Screen Watch