Monday, December 7, 2015

Documenting The Lifestyle: Why Straight Outta Compton Works!

The Good: Engaging story, Decent performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Underdeveloped moments and characters
The Basics: Straight Outta Compton hits its mark for telling the story of Ruthless Records and the meteoric rise of N.W.A.

Living, as I now do, in pretty much the middle of nowhere, I do not get to go out to the movies as often as I might like. There is a theater in my current town that shows a single movie for a single showing each day for a week or two at a time. So, when I go out to the movies at the nearest city, it takes a lot these days to hook me on going back out. Earlier this year, when I went downstate to see Terminator: Genisys (reviewed here!), there was only one movie trailer before the film that actually grabbed me and made me want to watch the film it advertised. The trailer was for Straight Outta Compton and I was surprised by how effective the trailer was (even if I didn't rush out to see it in the theaters when it was released in August).

Straight Outta Compton was advertised as a film based on the rise of the band N.W.A. and the draw of the trailer was impressive in that I was a kid when N.W.A.'s album Straight Outta Compton was released and, to this day, I don't believe I've heard the entire thing. As a kid growing up in the suburbs in Upstate New York, the concepts and struggles depicted in gangster rap were very much outside my experience. In fact, in high school, I can recall only one of my fellow students who knew anything about gangster culture. But the preview trailer for Straight Outta Compton painted a picture of an engaging story that would tell the story of how the Los Angeles rap group N.W.A. was formed.

And, in broad strokes, Straight Outta Compton does that. The film belabors the disintegration of the band, more than its formation, but for those who have no experience with the players involved, Straight Outta Compton depicts an interesting story of young, disenfranchised men who decide to make a positive contribution to society by railing against the problems they live with daily.

In Compton (Los Angeles) in 1986, Easy-E is dealing drugs and avoiding the police, while the local D.J. Dr. Dre is struggling to get respect from his mother, who wants more from him. He leaves his brother behind at his mother's house and moves out to try to make a viable music career. At the time, Ice Cube is in high school, writing rhymes and songs about life around him. One night, at Doo-Tos Club, Dre puts Cube on the mic while he and DJ Yella spin records. Easy-E and MC Ren hear the performance and are impressed. Dre convinces Easy-E to put some of his drug money into a record and soon after, they form Ruthless Records. The quintet creates a record, "Boyz 'N The Hood" with Easy-E providing the lead vocals and they begin selling out copies of the single locally. While picking up a pressing of the record, Easy-E is approached by Jerry Heller. Heller tells Easy-E he can make N.W.A. legitimate and he soon delivers, by getting the group signed with Priority Records. While recording the album Straight Outta Compton, the group goes outside and is harassed by the Torrence Police and Jerry steps in; Ice Cube writes the song "Fuck Tha Police" and it becomes a hit for the group.

While touring to promote the album Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. sells out shows around the United States and they spend 1989 touring, until Dr. Dre's younger brother is killed and the band is arrested during their Detroit concert. At a press conference after the band is freed, a reporter's question about money clues the uncontracted Ice Cube into the idea that the band is making a lot of money that its members are not seeing. As the primary writer of the group's material, Ice Cube pushes Jerry for a better contract before he quits the group and goes solo. As Ice Cube's solo career takes off, N.W.A. releases a second album without him and the band begins to fall apart. By 1993, Easy-E finally learns the truth about how Jerry was stealing money from him and the others and as N.W.A. prepares to come back together for a new album, Easy-E collapses from HIV-related complications.

Straight Outta Compton works for the parts it possesses, but it is noticeably missing massive chunks of the story of the band N.W.A. Easy-E is shown coming up with the name Ruthless Records, but the group is already named N.W.A. when Easy-E meets Jerry. Similarly, how the members of the group met one another is not at all clear from Straight Outta Compton. Moreover, while MC Ren might have been integral to N.W.A., in Straight Outta Compton, he is essentially a background singer. Similarly, DJ Yella is presented as a technician while Dr. Dre seems to be the group's primary composer. Straight Outta Compton is also lacking in any scenes that reveal how much of the titular album was actually created: after a single recording becomes a hit, N.W.A. is suddenly recording a full album based on . . . .? Ice Cube's notebook, perhaps? Only the genesis of "Fuck Tha Police" is illustrated and as a writer, it's somewhat baffling to me to consider that the group speed-read the song and then instantly composed and recorded it?

The question marks are indicative of how the narrative gaps in Straight Outta Compton affect the basic comprehension of the story the movie depicts. Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube are given substantive roles in Straight Outta Compton, but even Jerry Heller has a more meaty role than MC Ren and DJ Yella. A film ought not to require extensive research on the story it tells in order to understand what it depicts. To wit, there is a single line in Straight Outta Compton from Jerry to Easy-E about him having sex with a lot of women prior to Easy-E suddenly being revealed to be H.I.V. positive. It's not like throughout the film, Easy-E is actually seen with tons of different women.

Despite the occasionally sloppy storytelling, Straight Outta Compton is very engaging. It is also surprisingly charming. There are some amusing one-liners throughout Straight Outta Compton and they are universally well-delivered. While Paul Giamatti is the most prominent performer in Straight Outta Compton, the talents of O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell are impressively presented. Jackson plays his own father (Ice Cube) throughout the film and he nails the role from the trademark scowl to the swagger Ice Cube has on-screen. Hawkins plays Dr. Dre and the role gives him a couple of truly great scenes as Dr. wrestles with leaving his family and its effects.

Mitchell is getting decent pre-Oscar buzz already and his performance as Easy-E gives him a lot to play with. After hours of playing Easy-E cool and collected, Mitchell has to maintain the character while infusing him with absolute shock over his diagnosis and the loss of the power and clout he once had. The on-screen gravitas of Jackson and Mitchell and the scenes bouncing between the two makes for a better flow for Straight Outta Compton than the film's writing.

In the end, Straight Outta Compton is a solidly entertaining docudrama, regardless of how much of it is missing; what is present is impressive enough to be worth watching.

For other works with Aldis Hodge, please visit my reviews of:
The Walking Dead - Season 4
The East
Happy Feet
American Dreamz


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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