Straight Outta Compton (2015)
dir. F. Gary Gray
written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
starring: O’Shea Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr, Aldis Hodge, R. Marcos Taylor, Paul Giamatti
3.5 out of 4 stars
F Gary Gray, director of Straight Outta Compton, was given quite the task: create an entertaining biopic surrounding the origins through early solo careers of rap group N.W.A. while keeping a young cast of actors in a fast paced, entertaining retrospective of their art and their lasting influence in popular culture and society. The director of Friday, The Italian Job remake, and numerous music videos, including TLC’s “Waterfalls”–a personal favorite–and videos by N.W.A. members Dr Dre and Ice Cube, he has prepared for this position his entire career. With Straight Outta Compton, he delivers a tense, dense summary of these musical innovators and icons.
Focusing primarily on the core members of the group Eazy E, Dr Dre, and Ice Cube, the movie paints a portrait of young artists following their dreams and reacting to the racist violence that envelopes their lives. Their talent and passion grew from humble beginnings in Compton, CA, a notoriously dangerous city south of Hollywood, and amidst their rise to fame, they encounter self-serving businessmen, adoring fans, and heaps of controversy. Where there are so many events to cover, much of the movie surrounds their response to police brutality against African Americans and the issues they face with record executives monopolizing on their youthful inexperience.
The three leads Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) are both impressive lookalikes and unlikely dramatic powerhouses. Providing little on the line of overacting, a pitfall of many music bios, these young actors make remarkable debuts/breakouts (this is O’Shea’s first role). Mitchell provides the ups-and-downs of Eazy-E’s too short life, dying of AIDS at 30, with notable skill. His reaction to his diagnosis cinched his ability to land a dramatic moment. O’Shea Jackson Jr provides an excellent imitation of well known rapper and actor Ice Cube. Hawkins, a performer best known for the character Heath on The Walking Dead, shows restraint in his most dramatic scenes, but the more relaxed moments of Dre enjoying his music shows Hawkin’s skill at natural acting. He doesn’t go big often, but he shows confidence and strong characterization of the rising star.
Save the distracting casting of Paul Giamatti, whose performance is expectedly good, they are surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns that create the most engaging ensemble of the year, much a credit to the strong direction from Gray. Bit parts such as Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) as Snoop Dogg give them film timely fun. Special recognition is additionally reserved for R. Marcos Taylor who played rap mogul/evil dickhead Suge Knight; his performance is intense and unnerving.
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s comprehensive screenplay covers an impressive amount of information in its two and a half hour runtime. Though they likely could have trimmed a line or two of dialogue from many scenes, their cohesion and balance of drama and musical homage are exemplary. With Gray’s direction and the talented editing from Billy Fox and Michael Tronick, this long movie runs at a breakneck pace without losing the story. Over everything, though, the quality of the sound mixing is fantastic. Allowing the music to take the spotlight, even drowning out dialogue, a la The Social Network, it’s never forgotten the importance of the music to these young men.
With great care, the cast and crew develop a portrait of rap music innovators and cultural revolutionaries. Despite the turmoil the group faced during its short run, the highlights and downfalls of the various members. A strong cast and handsome production creates the best musician biopic since I’m Not There.