Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: Straight Outta Compton

by Adam Riske
So damn entertaining.

The experience of watching Straight Outta Compton, getting caught up in its energy and bravado, is thrilling. This is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all summer and really, at the end of the day, a celebration of the artists whose story it’s telling – specifically NWA’s Eazy E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. It strays into hero worship at times, too. Under that lens the movie works. Really works. These three artists were monumentally influential in rap, transitioning the genre from party time jams (LL Cool J, Run DMC) and into dark territory, specifically gangsta rap. In the opinion of this writer, it was the high water mark of the genre – ambitious artists, flawless beats and amazing production. It just sounds good to me. I have so much fondness for the music of this genre, the time period and its artists. It’s the type of music that makes me go “ooh that’s gooooooood” in my head when I listen to it. The lyrics not so much, and that’s how I’d like to approach the movie Straight Outta Compton. It’s like most NWA songs for me – I love the way it sounds but I have problems with some of the things it says.
To say the movie walks around allegations surrounding NWA’s music (the misogyny and prejudice) would be fair. This is not a warts-and-all biopic. It was co-produced by some surviving members of the group and they’re very careful of their images in the movie. But it’s not a total whitewash. There are some thorns evident. Dr. Dre comes off the most saintly, but Ice Cube’s criticism for being possibly anti-Semitic is there. Easy E’s carelessness with money and women is there. Is it to the movie’s detriment that it’s not more upfront about the more negative aspects of NWA’s art and attitudes? Maybe, but maybe not. Straight Outta Compton would not necessarily be a better movie just for having all of their indiscretions on the screen.

To the movie’s credit, it effectively explores what was going on at that moment in history for young black men in California, including constant police harassment which mirrors (sadly) our current events of late in places like Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. The anger at the surface during the first half of the movie is as relevant as ever. The Straight Outta Compton we have here is a sprawling rap epic, a 147-minute (no good movie is too long) journey into the genre from the late 1980s to mid-1990s that charts the music and the culture of its time very well. In that way, it’s almost like NWA is Forrest Gump – the center of focus for a bigger story about what’s going on in a genre as opposed to America as a whole with Gump. This is also a really good movie about how shitty the music business is to be a part of – full of crooks and hangers-on.
Everyone involved in Straight Outta Compton brings it. It’s like when a rapper knows he has a great rhyme (like “time” and “crime”) and steps up to the mic. The performances from an ensemble cast work across the board, turning icons into real personalities. O’Shea Jackson Jr. (the son of Ice Cube) plays his father and he nails his depiction of the rapper turned actor. In fact, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is so much like Ice Cube I’m convinced it’s really just Ice Cube and they did that de-aging Michael Douglas shit from Ant-Man again. It’s a great performance, although I don’t know where the young actor can go from here except maybe re-imagining Ride Along or something. Corey Hawkins does a solid job as Dr. Dre (who comes across in the movie as being all about the music and little about the bullshit – i.e. business and gangster lifestyle). Paul Giamatti is his usual solid self, although I feel like I’ve seen him play the exact same character just recently in Love & Mercy. The two best performances in the movie come from Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E and R. Marco Taylor as Suge Knight, the Death Row Records mogul and devil personified. Any scene with either of these two actors really soars.
Straight Outta Compton was directed by F. Gary Gray, whose career has mostly consisted of director-for-hire work such as Be Cool and The Italian Job remake. He’s had his ups (Friday, The Negotiator) and downs (Law Abiding Citizen, A Man Apart) and I’d certainly classify Straight Outta Compton as one of the best movies he’s made even if he didn’t crack the music biopic jinx of “and then this happened, etc.” Gray has a real feel for the material and the energy he infuses into the movie is infectious. The movie works primarily as a history lesson on the beginnings of gangsta rap (just before the East Coast-West Coast war) so for fans of this genre of music, seeing this movie is essential. All others may not need to see it but if you do, you’re in for a stylish, engaging and rollicking movie with outstanding music. I can’t wait to see it again.

20 comments:

  1. So glad to hear you liked this one - I've only read one review - the National Review of all places (thanks to someone on my Facebook feed) and surprise, surprise, it wasn't a good one! You, I trust.

    Embarrassing Confession: I read O'Shea Jackson, Jr. and thought, "Junior? How can he be Ice Cube's son with a totally different name?" like his name should be Ice Cube Jr. - man, coffee hasn't kicked in yet!

    Anyway, I'm a big fan of NWA (do they recreate the recording of "Automobile" by any chance - that was my first lol) and though there's a lot of, um, unhealthy messages in their lyrics, I don't really like to judge that aspect of the art of people whose experience is so vastly different from mine - like you say, it just sounds good to me - and from the sounds of it, dwelling on such things likely would've dampened the feeling the movie was trying to convey. Great review - really looking forward to this now.

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    1. I checked out the National Review review, and only had to see the reviewer's name - Armond White - before knowing which way the review would fall. Armond's reviews were included under Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes for years, and he was notorious for giving negative reviews to "certified fresh" movies like Dark Knight, Inception, King's Speech, and Frost/Nixon (the list goes on and on), and giving positive reviews to "rottens" like Your Highness and Battle: Los Angeles, often propping up bad movies with the "insight" that the director of said bad movie was making some grand social (or sometimes political??) statement. At some point he lost the Top Critic voice on RT, but for a long time, the commenters would joke that if Armond trashed the movie, then it would be amazing. It's good to see that some things never change.

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    2. Point of order: Your Highness and Battle: Los Angeles are both great. :P

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    3. I'll admit I liked the military commercial that was Battle: LA, but I never saw Highness. Armond is less known for propping up "rottens" (Jack and Jill) and much better known for not liking (or just giving poor reviews to) "fresh" movies like There Will Be Blood, Toy Story 3, Wall-E, etc. Ebert even called him a troll, and the RT community call him a contrarian.

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    4. Now I'm really curious as to other movie reviewers that F Heads read on a consistent basis, other than the reviewers here at F This Movie!

      Who else do you all read/listen to? It can be for thoughtful reviews or for entertainment (or for both).

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  2. Great review, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie as well. I left the theater feeling energized and fired up. It's been a while since a movie has done that sort of thing to me. When Paul Giamatti showed up on screen I literally laughed out loud and thought to myself, 'of course!' I was the only one in the theater who had that reaction, but it just seemed like an obvious role for him to play. I too thought Ice Cube's son portrayed his father perfectly. The actor who played Dre was kind of disappointing at first, but got better as the movie went along I felt. Eazy-E was spectacular though, really enjoyed his role in the film. I agree with you though, this was the Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E show, especially Dre and Cube who come out of this one looking like a pair of geniuses who were ahead of their time and fulfilled their dreams. I can't deny the fact that they did that, but maybe they could have made it seem like they were a little less 'sure' of themselves in the beginning. When Dre gets slapped by his mother in one of his first scenes he basically lays down the foundation that he has a dream and that he's going to make it no matter what. I don't know maybe I'm wrong on this one, but it all seemed a little too cliche and perfect. If these guys claimed they just wanted to be neighborhood superstars or known only in Compton, then why would Dre talk like he has this master plan to take over the world? They also didn't mention Dre slapping Dee Barnes. Anyways I thought this movie kicked ass, the music was incredible, and I agree with you Adam that it is the music and not so much the lyrics that I love as well. It was an intense and powerful film filled with a lot of exciting scenes, for example: the whole 'F*ck the Police' section of the film was the highlight for me. I watched that part with a big smile on my face, knowing the history of the group as I do, it was cool to watch that play out on screen. I love how deep they went into the Death Row stuff as well, I had no idea going in that they cast people to portray Snoop and Tupac, or Suge Knight being involved. I guess I should have expected that. I'm sure and Biggie and Tupac movie is in the works already especially after the monster opening weekend numbers. I agree with you though Adam, I can't wait to see this one again. I literally thought that walking out of the theater on Friday. That doesn't happen too often with me either.

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    1. I'm eagerly awaiting a Tupac biopic, however, the doc Tupac Resurrection is pretty flawless.

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    2. I knew you would be the one to review straight outta Compton. My opinion of it is pretty much on par with yours. I was surprised and at the end to see F Gary Gray had directed this. He is pretty much just a Director for Hire but I am fan of his films particularly Friday The Negotiator and yes A man Apart. Also this is the best portrayal of Suge knight I've seen. They captured all sides of his personality.

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    3. I liked that they showed what might draw someone to Suge Knight in the first place. Most news items or depictions skip over that.

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  3. 3 out of 3, not an easy trick with all new films, im really happy you liked it, im looking forward to it even more now, I own all the NWA albums, all Ice Cubes albums, inc the Westside connection stuff with WC and Mac10, the Lynch Mob albums and even Yoyo because Cube produced it, so I guess you could say im a big fan, but I aint forgiving Cube for those Are We there Yet? movies,
    Cheers Adam, turn up the tunes and hit me with yer Bop Gun

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    1. You're forgetting the best extension of them all - No One Can Do It Better by the great D.O.C.

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  4. I really, really liked it. The lives story of both the group and the individual lives of the different performers therein, as well as the depiction of the shitty nature of the music business, was really well done. That latter of those really hit home for me because I have a friend in LA who basically just gave up on her dream of being a recording artist because of how brutal and sleazy it all is. Everyone in the movie is so good, too. Watch it end up being Paul Giamatti or something, but I really think O'Shea Jackson, Jr. and/or Jason Mitchell should be considered standouts come the end of the year.

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  5. I feel like Straight out of Compton will be like the American Sniper of this year. A movie that's not all that great, but because of its content and who's involved will be paraded by the general public as the best movie of the year. When Oscar season comes around people will be pissed because it won't win anything and for good reason.

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  6. Honestly, SOC was way too long, missed a ton of stuff and was really boring. I think this film was made for fans after the fact and who did not live through the rise of their existence. Ren and DOC were totally disrespected as they wrote just as much as Cube did. Nobody knew who he was nor cared about Suge Knight during their heyday and NWA and The Posse was barely addressed. AND - Where the hell was Arabian Prince in this?!
    To me, this was the equivalent to someone watching a movie based on a book and they skipped some of the most important chapters as well as embellished on parts of insignificance. The praise for this movie is baffling to me.

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    1. I share your opinion to some degree. There are major flaws in the biographical portrayal of the NWA, but especially of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Ren and Yella. While the last two don't receive the credits which they deserve and are shown sometimes in a bad light (like Yella trying to be as good as Dre, but failing), the first two are shown as real geniuses with just minor flaws and crimes. Especially Dre comes of this movie way to well.
      On the other hand side there is a lot of good music and really well shot scenes beside some great observed character-portraits (Suge Knight and Easy-E). So I do understand some of the high-praying reviews and would also give the movie a "good" review - because it's not a documentary, but rather a movie based on a true story.

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