Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

King & Crenshaw




Anyone with even a passing interest in hip hop history will have all the preliminary information they will need heading into Straight Outta Compton. 
N.W.A. invented not only the sub-genre known as 'gangsta rap', but hip hop as the world would know it throughout its heyday in the early to mid-90's. Their influence can still felt today, though the Kendrick Lamar's and Lupe Fiasco's have broken about as far away from the original 'g-funk' aesthetic as they can and still be considered in the same genre of music. 

In Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray paints a picture of 'America's most dangerous neighbourhood' in Compton, California, and how it moulded and inspired the five young men who would use it as a jumping off point to create a whole musical empire. It's a film that is a snapshot of South Central Los Angeles at a time when it was at its bleakest, culminating with the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots that pulverized an already weakened community. 


This movie is really well made. Gray has spent a fair portion of his career putting South Central Los Angeles up on the screen, from the hilarious (Friday) to the grittily violent (Set It Off) to a host of music videos for some of hip hop's elite, including one of N.W.A.'s driving creative musical forces, Ice Cube. He places the eye of his lens on the streets of Compton like he's lived there all his life. When the group breaks big and heads out on tour, he photographs the concerts and out of control hotel room parties with equal parts fly on the wall voyeurism and in your face intimacy. When the group split up due to, what else, fights about money, he photographs the various members in wide open spaces on the properties of their massive homes, underlining their isolation from each other by highlighting the spoils of their separate successes. The end result is that it all feels very real. You buy it, from the dilapidated, worn out ghetto streets, to the multi-million dollar mansions in the Hollywood Hills. And, more importantly, you buy the journey. To be fair, it does at times feel like the Cube & Dre show. Which makes sense as both Cube and Dre are producers and were probably on set a lot to ensure authenticity. And the group's less dominating members DJ Yella and MC Ren feel like background characters much of the time. But that may have been the case in real life as well. But, most importantly, Eazy-E, who passed away in 1995, can't tell his side of things. Which is unfortunate as he was essentially the leader of the group during its dominating phase (the group was originally called 'Eazy-E and N.W.A.') 
It forces you to wonder how much of the story was tweaked in Cube and Dre's favour. 

The film packs a lot of history into two and a half hours. And while there's nothing short about two and a half hours of movie, it never once feels like it overstays its welcome. The story is at times intense, at others exhilarating, occasionally frustrating, but always completely entertaining. Yes it will be more exciting for those of us with a vetted interest in hip hop and its history, and even more so for those of us who know much of this story already (like the guy sitting behind me who had the obnoxious habit of predicting each scene before it played. Thanks buddy). But I still came home and recommended the film to my wife, who has very little interest in hip hop and even less interest in hip hop from that era. Because a good story is a good story and Straight Outta Compton is most certainly that. 


The acting in this movie will play no small part in its success and can't be overstated. Of course, the funnest and most pivotal choice in this regard was to cast Ice Cube's son to play his father. Not only do they look a lot alike (a lot alike), but his mannerisms and cadence of speech are a dead ringer as well. It's a fantastic performance. The actors that play the rest of N.W.A. aren't quite as doppelganger, but they're pretty damn close. And it doesn't take long before you stop comparing the actors to the real thing and just buy them for who they portray. And then we've got Paul Giamatti, who plays the weaselly manager, basically the exact same role he played in the recent Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. He's great, he always is, but seriously Paul, that's enough greasy bad guys for a while, time to stretch your wings a bit. 

A movie about what is essentially The Beatles of hip hop must be a lot of things, but above all it must be respectful of the music and the legacy. Straight Outta Compton is both, but it's more than that, it's a bridge between history and modern times that highlights the necessity of a group like N.W.A. in that particular place, at that particular time. And it highlights the necessity of likeminded groups today. I'm not saying we need another police baiting, anti-authoritarian rap group to encourage the masses to 'f**k tha police'. But we do need another artist or group of artists to come along and tell it like it is, whether the more conservative masses want to hear it or not. In some ways, surprisingly little has changed in certain areas of Los Angeles and other parts of America since the time that N.W.A. first dropped their gritty street poetry on the world. Which makes this film as relevant as it is entertaining. And part of what makes it one of the best films of the year. 

Rating: *****


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