The biographical motion picture, or “biopic”, can be a turgid affair which pleases only the most pretentious of critics. But find the right subject, or subjects, and a biopic can move beyond the world of snobs to find the mainstream audience it deserves. This particular biopic, from the under-appreciated F. Gary Gray, is one such example.
Straight Outta Compton focuses on the ground-breaking gangsta-rap group N.W.A. Forming in their hometown of Los Angeles during the late Eighties, the band was famed for capturing and reflecting the aggression felt by much of America’s youth around that same period. Among the group’s members were lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, producer Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, and the band’s leader Eric “Eazy-E” Wright.
“Eazy” (played by Jason Mitchell) was the first member of the group to achieve recognition after his record, “Boyz ‘n the Hood” became a hit single – despite its profanity and lack of radio play. The song catches the ear of has-been record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who offers to become Eazy’s manager. To assist with his new musical career, Eazy brings in “Dre” (Corey Hawkins), the producer of “Boyz ‘n the Hood”, and “Cube” (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the real-life son of Ice Cube) to form what would become N.W.A.
The group achieve nationwide attention with their debut album “Straight Outta Compton”, seeing their fame skyrocket before plummeting just as quickly. And… that’s pretty much the plot. Yes, ten years of music history has been condensed into two hours or so of visual entertainment. That fact in itself is impressive enough, but in focusing only on N.W.A and its members, Straight Outta Compton ignores the many other issues which arose during the group’s short-lived run.
For example, there’s a great scene in which both Cube and Dre are driving their luxury European sports cars through Los Angeles during the infamous riots of 1993. There’s no narration, no dialogue, no sound effects and no melodrama, yet the film perfectly demonstrates the differences between N.W.A and that of America. The band now represented everything it was once against, and America no longer had their music to identify with.
The trouble is that scenes and discussions like this one only appear briefly, and are soon after forgotten about. As well as that, the problems which the group were notorious for – such as its sexism, drug use, homophobia and glorification of gangs – are mentioned just as briefly. It’s as though Straight Outta Compton has tried to discuss everything it can about the band, but in doing so, it discusses nothing. Then again, with Cube and Dre on-board as producers, maybe there were things they didn’t want to openly acknowledge.
With all of that said, Straight Outta Compton is far more entertaining than the majority of biopics, thanks in no small part to the efforts of director Gray. In the likes of his stoner-comedy Friday and 2003’s remake of The Italian Job, he has shown an ability to bring out the best in actors who have little to no on-screen experience. Many of the young actors here are making their blockbuster debuts, but they act with such conviction one could be fooled into thinking they’re seasoned professionals.
What’s most enjoyable though is, surprisingly, the soundtrack. The world of hip-hop and rap if completely foreign to this reviewer, having been raised listening to rock and pop music from the Seventies and Eighties, so there was some apprehension upon first viewing the feature. Those who hold the same fear need not worry, as very soon one finds themselves bobbing along to N.W.A’s signature tune “F— Tha Police”, which is a reflection of how good the film is at engaging the audience.
Straight Outta Compton is one of the few mainstream biopics that doesn’t descend into snobbery. The characters are identifiable, the acting solid, the story interesting and the direction excellent. Even those who aren’t into rap music will be won over.
This film was previously reviewed for YO Bendigo on September 24th, 2015.