Levitt Reviews Straight Outta Compton (B+)


I’ll get this out of the way early…I’m not the biggest fan of rap.  When it comes to music, I’m more of a traditionalist;  tune and melody slightly more important to me than the words wheras in rap, the opposite is largely true. So, when it came to watching “Straight Outta Compton”, I was really coming at the subject largely from a beginners perspective. Of course, I’ve heard of NWA and knew of Ice Cube largely from his movies and “Aint nothin but a G Thang” but I was largely ignorant, except in very broad strokes, of the bands history and importance to gangsta rap.  I wanted to check out the movie, though, because I usually like music biopics and this film got such universal positive praise.

Most music biopics follow a very familiar template:  clashes with dissaproving moms (do moms in movies ever approve of anything?), low-level club owners who warn the band “their kind of music will never sell”, soon early success leads to drug excess and ego clashes, and for some reason each biopic I’ve seen always features a greedy jewish band manager with a bad hairpiece.  “Straight Outta Compton” hits all these familar beats without apology but what separates this film and what stops it from being a superficial “movie of the week” is the throbbing vitality of the music itself and its unflinching portrait of the world it depicts.  NWA, the film’s focus and its main members:  Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube not only write and rap about their violent culture they live it.  Unlike many musicians who visit and report on injustice in songs in an “aint that just to bad” or detached coffee-house way, these guys are the ones who are getting guns flashed in their faces and thrown down on the hoods of cop cars. Much of their rhymes serve as a retaliatory gut-punches on what just happened.  The lyrics have a raw. blunt, immediacy that could not be denied by the music industry and the public at large.

The film shows the rise of NWA and the politics within the group and clashes with record producers/managers.  There are many scenes  and the groups manager, Jerry Heller played by Paul Giamatti who adopts a paternal protective image with the band and forms a special Bond with Eazy-E. I liked this relationship but felt that these scenes and much of the films middle part was a bit insular.  There are boardroom scenes and scenes noting the band’s success by showing lavish pool-side parties. But Since NWA,  was such a fan favorite, I would have preferred more scenes which showed the group interacting with the public….laughing or commiserating with fans,   or the group connecting with old people of their neighborhood.

Interestingly, in a film largely about violence and bravado, I found the film was at its most effective in moments of quiet. The scene where Dr Dre learns about his brother dieing is a standout.  The guys are allowed to take a pause and reflect on the transitory nature of life despite any momentary material/financial advantage.

As I mentioned much of the film is about the groups clash with record executives. In a fit of rage, Dr Dre is scene taking a bat to one excutive’s display of gold records.   But, the primary relationship of the film with Eazy E and his manager, Heller needed a more satisfying resolution. Despite Dre Dre and ice Cube leaving NWA because of Heller’s corruptness/skimming off the top earlier in the film,  Eazy-E stayed loyal to the the manager despite mounting evidence that Heller was cheating the band of some profits.  I think there needed to be an extra scene which showed why Eazy was so blindingly trustful or why Heller was so unnecessarily greedy to make a better payoff at the end.

I enjoyed Straight Outta Compton and found the pace of the film good and the performances first rate. (especially from O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube who captures the sullenness, and Jason Mitchell (as Eazy E) who inhabits the films most dramatic moments.  I would have liked a scene or two about the actual writing process and the members of NWA struggling more to find their musical voice.  But, I realize that the writing/creative process is a hard nut to crack in a dramatic way on screen.  Films from everything from Barton Fink to Throw Mamma From the train have tried to depict the writing process in a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful way.  Maybe ultimately true creation is often too random and elusive to truly capture on screen.But, At least we have films like Straight Outta Compton to testify to the vibrant/ lasting end result.




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