Chronicling approximately a decade of time following the three most notable members of gangsta rap supergroup N.W.A. and named after their landmark debut album, Straight Outta Compton is a musical biopic that often approaches the large proportions these artists deserve. This is not “Behind the Music” nor the chintzy examples of this genre that we sometimes find on VH-1 or Lifetime. F. Gary Gray’s movie is a timely tale about timeless music that was thought to be a total fad when Dr. Dre first spun his iconic beats for fellow group members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren.
It begins in 1986 with the group’s formation in the drug infested Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Talented DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) recruits local drug dealer Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) to help fund the group. O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (played by Cube’s real life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is the fiery rapper and lyricist along their side. MC Ren and DJ Yella… well, they’re also in N.W.A. I don’t say this to minimize their contributions. The film just really doesn’t spend any time exploring them. This is understandable because Compton has a lot on its plate and packs a lot in during its two and a half hour run time.
The period of time covered here does explore two managers who both helped make the group’s and Dre’s solo masterworks occur and employed nefarious tactics that wreaked havoc. For N.W.A., it’s Jerry Heller (played with gusto by Paul Giamatti) and later on it’s notorious Death Row cofounder Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). For those familiar with the story, we get the expected high and lowlights beyond the corporate intrigue – the young men adjusting to fame, Cube’s controversial exit, Eazy’s eventual health issues, and the group’s dealings with police brutality both before and after they achieved fame. Of course, some of those instances lead to their most notable tracks.
What helps Compton achieve more than most of its contemporaries is likely due to director F. Gary Gray, who early in his career directed videos for Cube and Dre and helmed 1995’s weed classic Friday, which starred and was cowritten by Cube. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Young are also producers and this all leads to an air of authenticity that permeates the production. It elevates this material to superior heights, even if we’ve seen these tales (whether based in truth or not) before.
Mitchell stands out as Eazy and he is given the most emotional story arch to work with. Jackson, as you’d expect, has probably had plenty of practice mimicking his old man and does a commendable job and Hawkins is a suitable Dre. And of course, there’s the music. A sound that was dangerous to so many ears and still is. It was also brilliant and Dre’s incredible contributions to the sound of the last 30 years is given its proper due.
Straight Outta Compton sometimes does feel like its trying to pack in so much recent history that it feels fragmented. The N.W.A. tale and Death Row saga could easily be separate pics (brief glimpses of Snoop and 2Pac make you wish for that 2 1/2 hours of devotion). For what we’ve been presented, though, Compton is on the higher (not a Chronic reference) end of these tales with beats by Dre that keep its propulsive rhythm humming.
*** (out of four)