Exactly 1/2 of F. Gary Gray’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is thrilling, top-tier musical/biopic entertainment. It crackles with near-literal electricity from the first scenes of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) dodging likely-impending death in a drug deal gone bad only “thanks” to the arrival of an even more fearsome LAPD right up through the formation, creation and pop-explosion of N.W.A and climaxes with a blowout setpiece where a live performance of “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (which local cops had warned them not to perform) erupts into a riot that ends with N.W.A arrested yet symbolically victorious.
It’s some of the coolest, most assured “mythic history” filmmaking of the year, alive with righteous anger, the thrill of creative inspiration and authentic-feeling early-90s Los Angeles milieu… and then that rapturous Detroit sequence concludes and the whole production slips back down to just “decent” territory – clearly unable to find a natural ending other than speeding through an at once over-sanitized and over-cranked highlight reel – focused mainly on contract disputes and paperwork, no less – to reach Eazy’s AIDS death in 1995.
Ironically, what consigns the film to an almost-classic is an unwillingness to admit that the specific moment in hip-hop history N.W.A loomed so large in only really existed “authentically” for just that: Only a moment. Without the (explicit) truth of that shift up on screen, the film’s second half just can’t bring itself to be as raw about the end of the myth as the first is about the creation: Even if you don’t know the story beforehand, it’s easy to feel the missing spaces where Dr. Dre’s (Corey Hawkins) history of abusing women, Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson, the real-life Cube’s own son) immediate and savvy transition to Hollywood player and any other 90s rappers who weren’t part of N.W.A’s immediate orbit are supposed to fit – to say nothing of the increasingly-inconsistent characterizations.
Dre somehow “doesn’t realize” that his Death Row Records partner Suge Knight is a monster until it’s almost too late? Cube is sharp enough to know he’s being taken advantage of by N.W.A’s resident svengali Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) but not precisely how or well-enough to let it happen twice? Those are just the most incongruous and “sticking out” of the film: It’s also odd to watch the infamous back-and-forth “diss track” feud that followed Cube’s departure be played entirely sans-irony, as though N.W.A’s played-for-the-press beefs of the 90s really were a real extension of the “gangsta” lifestyle none of them but Eazy had actually lived rather than the genesis of the pro-wrestling-style play-acting of inter-label “beefs” as actual gangland feuds that quickly became a staple of the genre.
Were the film (or, rather, it’s producer/subjects) willing to “own up” to that narrative, there’d be room for a grand rise/fall/ressurection story worthy of Gray’s filmmaking and the (mostly) newcomer cast’s performances: N.W.A ignites a revolution in the hip-hop genre by bringing in an inner-city authenticity, but (perhaps as a darkly-ironic side-effect of them largely being pretenders to the scene) it quickly metastasizes into a creeping artifice that each member has varying difficulties ultimately escaping. That’s not to say that the narrative it has, i.e. a crew of outsider-artists negotiating fame and fortune without the survival-skills artists on more traditional career-trajectories are afforded, is “bad” – just that the one closer to the truth (and peeking through at the margins) would’ve been even better. Again, that scene after scene of rappers leafing through stacks of paper is as compelling as it is is a credit to the film.
For all the (by now) well-worn talk of what the film omits (Dre’s numerous abuses of women, Cube’s tracks inciting violence against Korean grocers in Black neighborhoods, the generalized homophobia rampant in 90s hip-hop); it’s mainly Dre’s character who stands out as an issue: Cube’s seemingly natural-born yet uneven business savvy works overall for an arc (towards the end he’s pounding out the screenplay to FRIDAY at roughly the same point that Dre is nurturing newcomers Tupac and Snoop Dog) and since Eazy isn’t around to object he gets to be a “full” character; but Dre remains an awkwardly inscrutable presence: His character is the most (blatantly) sanitized, but it was impossible for me not to imagine the real present-day Dr. Dre seeing it as an act of extreme transparency: “Okay, it took a long time but I’m finally okay admitting openly that I was a music geek pretending to be a gangsta.” …while meanwhile the audience is going “Dre, we knew that. Now, how ’bout all those women you beat up? And also, nobody believes you didn’t know Suge was The Devil.”
So, it’s a flawed film; but enough of it is great that it’s also a pretty damn good one. Having all that lightning-in-a-bottle 90s West Coast hip-hop on the soundtrack certainly helps, but Gray makes even the least authentic moments (Eazy finding his rap-voice and donning his signature shades in the same moment is framed like a superhero origin sequence) feel alive and vibrant; though it’s perhaps telling that the most arresting shot in the film – a pair of formerly-rival L.A. gang members advancing on cops during the Rodney King riots holding up conjoined blue and red bandanas – doesn’t feature the main cast.
Perhaps, even, it says something profound that a group of young black men once declared (literal) enemies of the state over their music can get the kind of self-mythologizing biopic usually afforded only to aging white musicians: We’ve seen the “Wait, I can express myself creatively!?” moment of inspiration in hundreds of films, but seldom from characters who look like this or come from here – the realization that Dre telling Eazy “That shit was dope!” when he half-stumbles into a real rythym during a recording might be the first time he’s received praise for something like that in his life an instantly iconic exchange.
Either way, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is viscerally satisfying entertainment, and without question one of the few 2015 films we’ll absolutely still be talking about years from now.