Sunday, September 6, 2015

Much-anticipated NWA biopic aligns Compton grit with Hollywood glamour (Straight Outta Compton – Film Review)

Straight Outta Compton is many different things: part-biopic, part-homage, part-buddy movie, part-period piece, part-Hollywood blockbuster. And if you can excuse its flaws, it’s a highly entertaining and, in its own way, important film that’s acutely aware of NWA’s contribution to hip-hop and, in a broader sense, race relations and free speech in America. Work began on the film in 2009, but it arrives exactly 50 years since the race riots in Watts, just north of Compton, and also at a time of renewed tensions between the police and African Americans.

The story covers the birth of NWA in the mid-to-late 1980s, through to Dr Dre leaving Death Row Records (his post-NWA label) and going it alone with Aftermath in 1996. In that time, the group went from rags to riches, stunned America, imploded spectacularly, went solo (in the case of Ice Cube and Dre), turned on each other, provided the anthem for the 1992 Los Angeles riots (‘Fuck Tha Police’) and attempted a reconciliation before Eazy-E’s death from complications relating to Aids in 1995. Gray makes excellent use of this wealth of dramatic material, particularly in the film’s first half – beginning with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) caught in the midst of a drug deal gone bad (he left dealing behind to start Ruthless Records, NWA’s label) and recognising that, although NWA sold themselves as a “reality” rap group, their music contained pure theatre. ‘Fuck Tha Police’, for example, sets itself up as a fictional trial in which NWA try the LAPD for crimes against them, with Dre acting as the judge.

Gray, who grew up in Compton, has history with the group, directing Ice Cube’s ‘It Was A Good Day’ video in 1993 and also Cube’s 1995 stoner feature, Friday. The FBI may not have recognised the humour in NWA’s music when they came after them for ‘Fuck Tha Police’ (gifting them the opportunity to brand themselves as ‘the world’s most dangerous group’), but Gray does. Some of the best scenes are comedic, like when the remaining members of NWA and assorted female hangers-on hear ‘No Vaseline’ for the first time, a diss track by Ice Cube, who left in 1989 over a royalties dispute.

Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, plays his father in the only way he could – brimming with rage, and of course it helps that he physically resembles his dad. Corey Hawkins as Dre, Mitchell as Eazy-E and R Marcus Taylor as Death Row boss Suge Knight are near doppelgängers too, and it doesn’t matter that Paul Giamatti (star of Sideways and the cast’s only established actor) doesn’t much look like Jerry Heller, NWA’s controversial manager. Giamatti is superb as Heller, offering gravitas to every scene he’s in (especially those with Eazy-E, which are played out surrogate father-son style), but, ultimately, Gray’s decision to focus so much attention on Heller, who wasn’t consulted on the script, causes problems. The back end of the film gets bogged down in the details of whether he ripped NWA off (a perennial question that remains unanswered) before finding focus again confronting the death of Eazy-E.

Take Straight Outta Compton for what it is – a sanitised and over-dramatised take on one of hip-hop’s most significant groups. The old adage is that, by road, Compton is 16 miles from Hollywood, but in reality it may as well be on a different planet. For the two and a half hours this film rolls, however, Hollywood and Compton are just different names for exactly the same place.

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