Straight Outta Compton review
For a kid growing up in the back-of-beyond England, in the late 1980s, the perception of America was based around the flash and bang of Knight Rider and Airwolf. Domestic issues were the preserve of The Colbys, Carringtons and Ewings. American music was hair and guitars. America was white, in our minds. Three pieces of vinyl (or more probably TDK D90s) changed that perception for a few of us. Licence to Ill by the Beastie Boys showed me that the white young adult was not-so-much 90210, It Takes a Nation of Millions… by Public Enemy broke the MTV complacency and most importantly? Straight Outta Compton took the wide-eyed lust for California and spat out something that was just mesmeric.
Straight Outta Compton – the film – is a pretty unflinching account of the rise and self-destruction of the band NWA. It opens with an Eazy-E drug deal and sets the scene on life in non-media LA. It ends with his death from HIV. In between, Straight Outta Compton hits a pretty true to chronology journey through the life of the band and its key players.
This is a film that has been fighting to be made since 2009. A number of false starts finally led to the selection of F. Gary Gray as director, who had worked with Ice Cube on Friday and and also with Dr Dre in Set it Off. Both Ice Cube and Dr Dre are listed as producers, along with Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. Without having been a fly on the wall during the implosion of the group, it is difficult to tell just how much Eazy-E or manager Jerry Heller (here played by Paul Giamatti in a shocking wig) were to blame. Certainly Dre and Cube get possibly an easier representation than the documented history might suggest. That said, there is obviously a level of affection that is played towards both E and Heller in Straight Outta Compton. Without Eazy-E’s initial money and Heller’s ability to “open the door,” then NWA may possibly never have got any further than Compton.
A number of commentators have raised the casting of Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, as his father whilst not casting Eazy-E’s son Lil Eazy E. Whether this is due to any continuing hostility is impossible to say, but Jackson Jr does a convincing job here, as do a cast that are, in part, chosen on looks as much as talent. The only glaring fail is the brief scene of Marcc Rose as Tupac which does jolt the viewer out of the reality.
F. Gary Gray works with a tight script and manages to get some good performances from the ensemble. As with all rockumentaries, the key aim is to put the viewer into the director’s vision of the truth, whether it is Oliver Stone’s The Doors or Spinal Tap… With such an amount of history to squeeze into the 147 minutes, there is are times when key incidents outweigh character exposition. We get Eazy-E’s story at the start and then at its end, but I would have enjoyed a little more of just how brilliant he was at twisting the situation to benefit the band. Here was a self-confessed drug dealer from the projects who sat at a table in the Republican White House. White America must have been shi**ing itself and that would have been great to see here. Sadly, the machine-gun nature of the middle of the film does affect the emotional impact of the decline of Eazy-E. We rush through the collapse of Ruthless and suddenly arrive at his deathbed.
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t flinch for the racial tension of the period. This is a film about racism and the establishment. Use of the Rodney King footage and subsequent court case winds around the evolving views and feelings of the main protagonists. Without the music then the chances are that the King Footage would never have crossed the Atlantic. The film does “fictionalise” elements, to prove a point. In Detroit, NWA played Fuck tha Police, but they went back to the hotel after the gig, not to the back of a Police van at the venue.
This is not going to be the first choice movie for everyone. To be brutally honest, it will not be the film that is expected by some of those rushing to see it. NWA and Public Enemy made a nation stop, think, and ask questions of itself. Those 1980s albums opened eyes, opened fears and above all resonated with an audience. Musically, what came after was a different thing, and for those raised on the cult of Tupac and beyond, Straight Outta Compton might not be what is expected. It is a damn good film and as much a document of social change as it is a celebration of music.
I’m not going to give a flippant grade to Straight Outta Compton. I think that you should go and see it. If you don’t know about the time period, then read up on it. Unusually for me with films, I would have happily gone back in and watched it a second time.