Friday, July 31, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

If you strip it down to its most basic elements, Straight Outta Compton isn't all that different from any other music biopic: it charts the humble origins, meteoric rise, staggering success, and eventual fall of a popular group. But thanks to its blistering energy and superstar performances from the lead actors, the film manages to transcend its formula, delivering a captivating portrayal of young men whose music changed the national conversation and had a massive impact on pop culture.

Straight Outta Compton
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti

The movie opens with a drug deal gone wrong, the L.A.P.D. smashing into a house with a battering ram, and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) barely escaping in time. Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube's real-life son) is writing raps on the school bus, while Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) shows early signs of his talent for sampling and remixing by grinding in the back room of his house. They all collide pretty quickly, and as is often the case in biopics, watching the group's early sessions and the creation of their iconic songs is a ton of fun. (A personal note: I'm not even a big fan of gangsta rap, but that surprisingly didn't affect my enjoyment of the movie. Don't let your lack of fandom stop you from seeking out this film.)

The performances from the trio of young leads are stunningly good, with Mitchell giving the arc of Eazy-E an almost mythically tragic quality. This is star-making work from him, Jackson, and Hawkins, and I hope they find more work quickly if they want it (Hawkins has already joined the next season of The Walking Dead). The supporting players are solid as well, with R. Marcos Taylor portraying a terrifying Suge Knight and Keith Stanfield showing up in a much more lighthearted moment as Snoop Dogg (he's terrific in his brief moment as Snoop). Here's as good a time as any to mention that this film is produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, so we have to take their depiction of events with a grain of salt; the film doesn't shy away from occasionally showing either of them in a bad light, but there's still a sense that there may be more to this story left untold. 

The music is great, and there's a vitality to the concerts depicted here that comes as a direct result of how wonderfully the film recreates the charged atmosphere between the police and the black community. I'd think the depiction of the police as profiling, power-hungry jackasses was cartoonish and unrealistic if the same confrontations weren't still happening right now in this country every single day. Though the film is set during the mid-'80s and early '90s, it may as well take place today — it's sad how relevant and timely it feels thirty years later.

This is a very long movie (almost two and a half hours), but the story is so compelling that it's hard to complain too much about spending more time with these characters. As the group eventually splinters, thanks largely to the noxious influence of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), director F. Gary Gray bounces between characters, showing their solo careers and the bad blood between them in the form of diss tracks (the remaining N.W.A. members listening to Cube's "No Vaseline" may be the film's funniest moment). The Los Angeles riots, spurred by the result of the Rodney King trial, are captured in a smoky haze by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who gives the movie an alternating sense of intimacy and larger-than-life revelry. As tensions rise between Dre and Suge at Death Row Records, between Cube and his new management, and between Eazy and his health (even if you don't know what happened to him in real life, you'll see Chekov's cough coming a mile away), you get the sense that these guys would all rather be back in the hood, recording songs like the old days and not dealing with the trappings of success. 

Commanding, charismatic, and cocksure, Straight Outta Compton is one of 2015's essential films.

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