Drama: A chronicle of the meteoric rise and subsequent unraveling of N.W.A., the pioneering gangsta rap group that took America by storm in the late 1980s and early '90s.
In the 1980s, members of what would become the iconic gangsta rap group N.W.A. grew up around each other in Compton, a crime-ridden inner suburb of Los Angeles. "Ice Cube" (O'SHEA JACKSON, JR.) was lucky enough to attend a prep school where his talent for poetry and rhyming was encouraged, and he would pen elaborate raps on the long bus rides home each afternoon. "Dr. Dre" (COREY HAWKINS) became a father while still a teenager and regularly faced pressure from his mother to get a job. But he dreamt of being a record producer and was a regular presence at local clubs. "Eazy-E" (JASON MITCHELL), meanwhile, was a local drug dealer who eventually sought to escape his violent lifestyle by investing in Dre's Ruthless Records label.
With Ice Cube's writing, Eazy-E's rapping, and Dre's production savvy, their first hit "Boyz N the Hood" attracted the attention of record-industry manager and businessman Jerry Heller (PAUL GIAMATTI), who saw much potential in Eazy-E's swagger, style, and talent. From out of this, the group N.W.A. formed along with DJ Yella (NEIL BROWN, JR.) and MC Ren (ALDIS HODGE). Their debut album "Straight Outta Compton" became a national smash with its profane, socially conscious raps about street crime, gang life, and police brutality.
Success, though, pulled the group in different directions. Ice Cube was the first to leave over a royalties dispute, but became a huge solo star and movie actor. Dre followed and joined up with the infamous Suge Knight (R. MARCOS TAYLOR) to form Death Row Records and produce everyone from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Tupac Shakur. Eazy-E, meanwhile, fell on hard times and ultimately contracted AIDS just after the three main players of N.W.A. seemingly made peace.
OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's been one heck of a retro-nostalgic summer for Yours Truly and many other people of Generation X. So many flicks these past three or four months have had ties or links to the era of the 1970s-1990s when we late thirty- and forty-somethings came of age. "Mad Max" got a reboot, "National Lampoon's Vacation" and "Jurassic Park" got sequels, and "Poltergeist" got a remake. The "Terminator" was indeed back. "Pixels" had classic '80s video-game characters being used as part of a global alien invasion. Tom Cruise STILL hasn't aged. And pretty much every major and minor Marvel comic-book character from Stan Lee's heyday made it to the big screen.
Now, we need a little music to play us all home. Ah, how about some old-school, classic, backspin, gangsta rap? This week's nostalgia kick is "Straight Outta Compton," a musical biopic chronicling the rise and fall of N.W.A. Now, it seems kind of odd to have the same warm, nostalgic feelings for a flick about a group of dudes who were called to the mat in the late '80s and early '90s for openly advocating for violence against police officers, glorifying the gang banger lifestyle, and referring to everyone from women to gays to Jews in the most derogatory way. But when you were a late teen or early twenty-something listening to those raps back in the day, they were as much party anthems as they were calls for social injustice.
I'm serious! Tons of white kids listened to N.W.A., Public Enemy, and others; puffed out their chests; and thought they were thugs in the moment. Look at all the Facebook memes being generated this past week, parodying the classic "Straight Outta Compton" album cover and juxtaposing it with images of areas that are SO not tough or crime-ridden (everything from "Straight Outta Bubble Gum" featuring Rowdy Roddy Piper from "They Live" to "Straight Outta Bayside" featuring Zach, Slater, Screech and the bunch from "Saved by the Bell").
The movie is produced by original N.W.A. members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. And if it has one flaw, it's that it pulls its punches when depicting the years 1986 through 1994 when the group formed, reached fame and infamy, and then disbanded amid ego clashes and royalty disputes. Dre and Cube take it fairly easy on themselves. They treat the late Eazy-E's memory mostly with respect. But they use the power of the screenplay to settle some scores with the peripheral players who tugged at the fringes of the group's easily unraveled tapestry. Early in the flick, they go to great lengths to humiliate a club owner who didn't believe there was any future in rap, preferring slow jams and R&B instead. Also getting the shaft is N.W.A.'s divide-and-conquer manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, in a role not too dissimilar to the one he played in "Love & Mercy" where he unraveled Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys). And Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) here is presented as pure concentrated evil.
What distinguishes the film, though, is its spot-on period recreations and some truly fantastic casting. It's rare I see a musical biopic where I completely forget I am watching actors playing famous people. Joaquin Phoenix was great as Johnny Cash. Ditto Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. But there was always a part of me that knew I was watching a mix of performance and impression, albeit at a high, high level. But with "Straight Outta Compton," the young actors they get to play Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E are so immediately believable as this trio, it's just uncanny.
It really helps, of course, that O'Shea Jackson Jr. is Ice Cube's son in real life. He channels his father in a way that goes beyond impression, though. Similarly, Corey Hawkins as Dre and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E not only look almost exactly like the two looked back in the day, but they have their mannerisms and inflections down just about perfectly. Only when the screenplay fails them, drifting into melodrama or turning unnecessarily episodic in spots during its second half, is the spell broken here.
The problem is in the second half of this nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie. "Straight Outta Compton" does such a fine job with the rise of the group, because they were all together and reaching for common goals. But when N.W.A. gets splintered, director F. Gary Gray then has to become a bit of a juggler and follow Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E in three different directions. And the flow of the storytelling suffers as a result. Consequently, we get more a Cliff's Notes/highlighted version of Dre's rise to music industry power mogul, Ice Cube's ascent into solo recording star and bankable movie actor and E's descent into money problems and, ultimately, AIDS.
Sequences are seemingly thrown into the movie because they were big moments and had to be in there to appease fans, but several are isolated as sequences and don't add to the collective whole of the movie -- sequences like Dre leading police on a high-speed chase through downtown L.A, and getting arrested. But we never get any sense of the consequences or aftermath. It's never mentioned again. Then, there is Eazy-E contracting HIV, and his pregnant girlfriend running out of the hospital room distraught at the news. We're never told if she also contracted the virus or was it passed on to Eazy's unborn child. The horrific traffic accident of The D.O.C., in which the rapper's throat was crushed, is referenced in the film. But to what end? At the same time, some very big moments of N.W.A.'s history are not dramatized at all, most notably Dre's beating up of female TV journalist Denise Barnes in 1991 -- a charge that he ultimately pleaded no contest to and settled out of court.
But when the film is on, it's quite good. And fans of N.W.A. will definitely get more out of it than anyone else, from the recreations of their concert performances to just hearing old-school raps like "Appetite for Destruction" and the title track in movie-theater surround sound. I also liked how it tracked with the real history of the time, from the early missteps of the Reagan and Bush administration's war on drugs to the Rodney King beating to the L.A. riots. There was a lot of ground to cover here, and props to Universal for giving the filmmakers such a long running time and final cut to get as much of it on the screen as they could. I give this a 6.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)