My high school buddies and I went nuts for the early trailblazers of rap music. It’s not that we could relate to the issues put forth by bands like Public Enemy and NWA, but we were legitimately fascinated by this new form of music. Mostly we just enjoyed singing along with the brilliantly intricate rhymes and bouncing around to the super funky beats, but deep down we knew there was a lot of truth, frustration, and anger encased in those songs. So while I couldn’t exactly relate to these men and their problems, I respected their honesty and I loved their music.
Given how remarkably controversial NWA was for the latter half of the 1980s, it seems strange to realize that it took about 30 years for the band to merit its own Hollywood biopic. But now they have, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect: a conventional “rags to riches to tragedy” biopic that covers all the key moments of the band’s career. Straight Outta Compton is a vibrant, engaging, and sometimes touching biopic, but it doesn’t give its audience much in the way of new angles or insights into the seminal hip hop group.
Given that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are executive producers on the film, one probably wouldn’t expect the Hollywood version of NWA’s meteoric rise to delve too deeply into the untold stories and unpleasant secrets. While Straight Outta Compton often feels like a surface-level recollection of the band’s brief but memorable time in the spotlight, it also boasts a wide variety of strong assets. In other words: NWA fans probably won’t learn a whole lot of new information from this movie — but they will certainly appreciate the look, the style, the energy, the performances, and, of course, the music.
The screenplay takes the standard “let’s start a band” template — only this time it originates in the dangerous streets of Compton, California — and quickly starts to pick up some steam. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. aka Ice Cube’s son), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) seem like an unlikely trio at first, but they quickly come to realize that their skills are highly complementary; Dre is a natural musician, Cube is a great writer, and Eazy has the money (not to mention the attitude) to get things rolling in the rapping department. In short order, their crew expands to include DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), and together they cut a record that strikes an obvious chord with local DJs. And that’s when an old white guy (Paul Giamatti) shows up to help the band hit “the big time.”
Plot-wise, this format is nothing new. We’ve seen it in virtually every musical biopic from The Doors to That Thing You Do! (Loyalties are tested, tragedies are overcome, friends are betrayed, the law strikes back, fortunes are lost, etc.) But hey, if the template still works, you may as well use it, and to its credit, Straight Outta Compton does manage to transcend its formulaic screenplay in a few key sequences. (There’s a pretty great moment when the NWA crew decides to strike back at the FBI, for example, but then we never get to see the consequences of their actions.) As far as digging a bit deeper in regards to the social impact of NWA’s music, we don’t really deal with any of that. This is a movie about Dre, Cube, and Eazy — and very little else.
So while Straight Outta Compton‘s screenplay is pretty much the standard, straightforward musical biopic, the film succeeds in a variety of other departments. The three leads, for instance, are nothing short of fantastic. It’s easy for a young actor to mistake “impersonation” for “performance,” but that’s not the case here. Yes, the guys playing Dre, Cube, and Eazy certainly look and sound precisely like their real-life counterparts, but they also bring some unexpectedly powerful acting chops to the party. Giamatti also adds a nice dash of ambiguous, jittery energy to the show, and R. Marcos Taylor (as producer Suge Knight) provides an unsettling air of volatility to his scenes. (Basically, he’s pretty damn creepy.)
Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Friday) does a fine job of bringing the NWA story to cinematic life; the mean streets of Compton are suitably ominous; the band’s rise to fame is filled with both drama and debauchery; and the tragic moments are handled with a good deal of heartfelt sincerity. If the plot structure is a bit predictable (and if the film runs about 15 minutes longer than it really needs to), then at least we’re also dealing with some strong production design, several very good actors, and some pretty great music.
Rating: Four dope burritos out of five
Editor’s note: Nerdist Industries is a subsidiary of the Legendary Digital Network.