Straight Outta Compton Review: Straight to the top

Director: F. Gary Gray

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti

The music biopic is a difficult one to get right, as it needs to be accessible to both fans of the artist it is about and complete newcomers. There is also a fine line between having too much music and being more like a  “concert film”, and not showcasing enough of the artist’s talent and instead focusing too much on their lives off stage. There have been some amazing music biopics in the last few years; the ones which jump to mind straight away are Walk the Line and Control. What made these so great was that the music was very much a part of the story being told, rather than a showcase, and the stories themselves were interesting enough to be a film script alone. Straight Outta Compton certainly has the right people behind it; Director F. Gary Gray has worked with Ice Cube previously, both in film and music videos, NWA band members Dr Dre and Ice Cube are both producers, as is the wife of Eazy-E, Tomica Woods-Wright. So will Straight Outta Compton go straight to the top of music biopics? Let’s find out!

The Overview

NWA were born out of the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California, however their rise to fame was a tumultuous one. Their experiences of growing up in the hood, and sometimes on the wrong side of the law were the driving force behind their pioneering style of music, leading them to revolutionize Hip Hop culture in the mid-1980s. Their frequent run-ins with the law enforcement, and the in-band fighting over money and contracts, meant their success was always tinged with controversy and drama. Straight Outta Compton mainly focuses on Eazy-E (Mitchell), Dr Dre (Hawkins), and Ice Cube (Jackson), and the shared experiences which brought them together and the fights which tore them apart.  

The Good

I don’t think you’re going to find a more thorough and in-depth telling of NWA’s story than this! Straight Outta Compton does great justice to the individuals which made up the essential parts of the band, and the music which revolutionized a genre of music and an entire generation of youths who desperately needed music which spoke to them and was about their experiences. The characters are dealt with in a very sensitive way, and there was more emotion and depth than I was expecting. Corey Hawkins who played Dr Dre was particularly excellent, and I was remarking about how much O’Shea Jackson Jr looked like Ice Cube before realising that was fairly inevitable as he is Ice Cube’s son!

The scenes of police brutality are incredibly hard-hitting, and it’s really gut-wrenching to see how badly minorities were treated by the police. This seems rather timely (although it probably wasn’t intended that way) and will probably resonate with a lot of people today as it is something which does still happen unfortunately with some very high profile cases generating a lot of media attention in the last year.

The concert scenes are excellent but not too indulgent which is sometimes the danger with biopics. The performance of F*ck the Police, just after they have been told they will be arrested if they play it, is so powerfully defiant and explosive, and one of the big highlights of the film. We see snippets of their other songs, plus songs from their solo careers and further music endeavours (particularly Dr Dre’s work with Snoop Dogg and Tupac) which makes it a much bigger biopic than just being about NWA. Whilst they are the focus of the film, it could also be considered a biopic of that era of music in general, and the staggering influence NWA had not just at the time, but for many years afterwards. The excellent footage playing over the credits at the end shows some of the artists who may not have come ‘straight outta compton’ but did come straight out of what NWA started.

I’ve already mentioned the casting of O’Shea Jackson Jr to play his father Ice Cube, but the rest of the casting has to be commended as well. The casting is absolutely dead on, in fact some of the comparisons are uncanny! There’s so many big characters in this film so it was difficult to give everyone equal amounts of screentime, but I think it was good that they chose to focus on Eazy-E, Dre and Ice Cube. Paul Giamatti is also great as their double-crossing manager Jerry Heller. I guess he is the closest we get to a villain in this film, but he plays it with a surprising amount of sincerity, meaning that it hurts even more when he takes advantage of the people who put their trust in him.

The Bad

There’s really not a lot to fault here, but at just shy of 2 and a half hours long, there is a lot in this film. Whilst most of it is necessary and the film is well paced, I think there are some bits which could have been cut down. Obviously when NWA are at the peak of their success, it is necessary to show some of their excess and lavish lifestyles, however I think this could have been toned down; some of the nudity was gratuitous and unnecessary. I guess you could say there was an “excess of excess”. This didn’t add a great deal to the plot in general so could have easily been taken out.

As with most biopics, I would say you don’t have to be a fan of NWA to enjoy this film but it’d probably help. On the plus side, if you didn’t like them before this film, then you certainly will afterwards. I fully expect Straight Outta Compton to make its way back into the album charts again!

The Verdict

I saw this movie and you should too. Whether you’re a fan of NWA or not, it’s an amazing film. It’s funny when it needs to be, hard-hitting in all the right places, and more emotional than I think you’d expect it to be. The casting is great, the music is as fresh and exciting as ever, and it’s a perfect testament to the staggering impact NWA had, and will continue to have, on music as a whole. Definitely go and see it!

Agree with everything I’ve said, or am I a terribly misguided idiot who has got it all wrong? Please let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share as well.


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