Monday, August 17, 2015

[Review] Straight Outta Compton

You've probably noticed that music biopics have become a common trend in Hollywood, populating movie screens at a frequent rate the past few years. This year's N.W.A. portrayal is the most hyped of them all. If we've learned anything, it's that there is a laundry list of things that can go wrong (and usually do go wrong) in music biopics. Thankfully, not much goes wrong in Straight Outta Compton.

During the intense and hazy opening scene, we see Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) dashing out of a dope house during a police raid. This is the first of several introductions to the artists we'll meet. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) finds himself getting lost in records (and wearing headphones), defying conventional employment. Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., who is actually Ice Cube's son) is reflective and observant, writing rhymes on notepads while witnessing Bloods vs Crips quarrels. And there's a temper there waiting to burst. From here on out, it's the formation of the infamous and influential hip-hop group N.W.A. and their explosion onto the scene, as well as the rise of Gangsta Rap (or "Reality Rap" as they like to call it), and the resistance that meets it.

Straight Outta Compton trades in the gloss and polish for a more gritty aesthetic, and the overall vibe strays away from getting too cheesy. It also must be noted that the audio during the performances actually captures the sound of a live rap show, so there isn't that flat and awkward aspect to it. And while the musical side of the tale is entertaining, energetic, and an intriguing draw for generations of the rap fans, it's the relevant themes that give this film its power--from racial profiling to police brutality, record industry politics, and the plight for freedom of speech. The narrative also doesn't gloss over the conflicts within the group. The film runs at a surprisingly long 160 minutes, but it never feels like it drags. Sure, the first half is generally more enjoyable, but that's because the story itself takes on a somber tone as it approaches its closing.

Any casting concerns are put to rest with these performances that surpass cartoony impressions.
O'Shea Jackson Jr. cruises by on looking almost identical to his father, and it works well. Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, and he's pretty much mastered this untrustworthy manager role, as he also demonstrated in this year's Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. And yes, he still has the best yell in the game. Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E is the true standout. It's seasoned, and the most depth-filled performance of them all. He's complex, soulful, funny, poignant, and he steals every single scene he's in. There is absolutely no legitimate reason why Mitchell shouldn't be in Oscar discussions this year.

Most of us will never know exactly how a lot of these 'behind closed doors' situations went down in real life. And of course, embellishments come with the territory, but this is a dramatic retelling--not a documentary. It at least seems that F. Gary Gray's picture was crafted with a lot of care, input, and enthusiasm. Some moments in the plot might come off as rushed bullet points, but they are bullet points that should stand the test of time.

* 9/10 *

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