How many hand clasps to back slap greetings can you fit into one movie? The answer may surprise you. And bore you. And annoy you. You all know each other! Just say what’s up! Or hello Dre. Hello Cube. Want to rap some music?
Putting aside my prejudices against seeing the bro hug on screen, Straight Outta Compton is a pretty good movie. And it might just be the best musical biopic out there.
Even if you aren’t a fan of N.W.A. or early 90s gangster rap, the story plays out exactly as you thought it did. Five kids from the mean streets of Compton, tired of being harassed/bullied/beaten by the police, dedicate their talents to the fast growing genre of rap music. You’ve heard of them before. There’s Ice Cube, who spends most of his time making romantic comedies now. There’s Dr. Dre who sold his headphone line to Apple for $3 BILLION DOLLARS?!? Is that right? Holy shit.
Then, in order of lessening importance, there’s Easy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella.
The group is rightly credited with helping bring rap to a mainstream audience. Not because they toned it down for mass appeal, but because of their raw musical talent.
The film’s strengths lie not in the rags to riches story, but in the connections between the early 90s black community and the modern day. N.W.A’s most controversial song was “Fuck the Police.” If you haven’t heard it, I assure you it’s not subtle. The group tapped into the very real, and completely justified, anger that minorities felt in L.A. and across the country. The movie takes a very necessary pause to highlight the Rodney King beating by the LAPD that ended with none of the officer’s involved getting convicted. The Black Lives Matter movement could have started then. We tend to forget that the city of L.A. erupted into a riot that night. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened again. There’s a great scene where the Detroit police warn the group that if they sing “Fuck the Police”, they’re going to get arrested. I think we all know what happened next.
Thankfully, Straight Outta Compton isn’t good just on poignancy alone. There are some very strong performances here. Especially Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who looks so much like his dad I thought it was CGI. Most of the real meat is given to Jason Mitchell (Easy-E) who gets to chew up scenes with Paul Giamatti. Paul, why do you like to play sleazy managers? Because that seems to be all you play these days.
But the film fails on several levels. There are so many characters wandering in and out it’s hard to make out any of the minor players. One founding member was cut from the film entirely. I had to look up MC Ren and DJ Yella. The movie glosses over Dr. Dre’s very real domestic abuse problems. And no one explains to me how Ice Cube chose his name. I want that origin story. Can he control Ice Cubes? Is he scared of them like Batman and is embracing them to conquer the fear? America wants to know, Cube.
The soundtrack is rightfully awesome, the acting is iconic and nuanced, and the relation to today couldn’t be clearer. Besides a narrative that’s clearly only meant to enhance the brands of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (and a hilarious Nicholas Sparks type scene where Dre and Easy-E basically confess their love for each other) Straight Outta Compton is a good movie and a great music biopic.
3 out of 4 stars.