Straight Outta Compton ***1/2
One Liner Review:
An intense look at a rap group that came up in the hoods of Los Angeles, this movie is gritty and violent, and extremely compelling.
This movie really goes into detail about the group NWA and how it all came to be. This is not your typical rise and fall story, but instead, the story of the inner workings within a group. In this film, once the characters rise, it only causes them to turn on each other and start looking for better deals. One by one they each leave the group and go their separate ways and the result turns to dissing each other in their next songs, and even violence. These guys come from a neighborhood where violence is a way of life and they can’t just shut that off once they become big time. I love the way that lifestyle follows them into their business and we watch guys like Sug Night use threats and force over things like signing and contracts. This is a unique movie that tells a story we really haven’t seen before. It’s a pretty exceptional film.
Straight Outta Compton is one of those wonderful surprises of a film. Who knew the guys behind some of the first rap music to ever really be about life on the streets, had ongoing life stories that were filled with threats and violence? Sure, we all could have figured this sort of thing was in their past, but the movie shows us that even after the guys get made and become big time, the violence doesn’t stop. It’s a part of them. This is their world and it’s the only one they know. So in a scene where Ice Cube (played by the actor’s real life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), gets ripped off by a record label, for example, Cube does the only thing he knows how to do. He brings a baseball bat into the place and starts breaking it apart. And this is long after he has hit it big.
The movie opens by introducing us to each of our three main characters indivually. First, we get the story of Eric, (Easy E.) This is the guy who dealt drugs and actually had some money under his belt when he met the other ones, who were scrapping for change. We meet Easy E in a stash house, doing a drug deal. The movie provides screen titles to tell us that this is Easy E, but he still looks a hell of a lot like Cube, with the long jery curl hair and black and white hat. Easy E wears White Sox hats and Cube wears Raiders hats, but at the time we meet E, we don’t know that yet. Still, despite the confusion of who he is (and there’s no doubt the screen titles were put in there just to try and clear that up,) the scene is great. The guys who own the house look out the window and see a giant tank with a battering ram coming down the street. Suddenly everybody goes running. The tank rips through the house, while Easy E gets out through a window and climbs on the rooftops like a superhero. This is a hell of a beginning, comparable to that great long tracking scene in True Detective, Season One, with Matthew Mcconaghey undercorver during a stash house raid. Here, in Compton, the movie gives that classic scene a run for its money.
After that we meet Andre (Dr. Dre.) He and Cube have lives that are much more tame than that of Easy E, but even they can’t avoid all of the violence and threats. In the case of Dre, it’s his mom who comes in his room and tries to talk some sense into him about getting a job. Dre spins records for fun, but there isn’t much money in it. At least not at this level. His mom tells him that when she had him she was too young, and everyone told her that she would amount to nothing and that her son would amount to nothing. Only she worked her ass off to make sure that didn’t happen, and now her son is just throwing that all away. Dre’s response is to walk out on her and leave home.
Finally, we meet Ice Cube. Now this is the actor that everyone knows from his major film career. Cube started making movies in the nineties with Boys N The Hood and Friday, and this movie chronicles all of that. It was a great move to have Cube’s son play the star, because the son looks exactly like him, and does a fine job with the acting as well. When we first meet Cube, he’s on a school bus writing lyrics. The highschoolers on the bus shout out their windows at cars passing by and try to give the drivers a hard time. When one car of tough guy gang-bangers isn’t willing to just keep driving on and ignore the kids on the bus, we get a taste of what life can really be like out there. The car stops short in front of the bus and the guys board the bus with guns in their hands. They go over to the kid who was making all the noise and hold a gun to his head, shouting threats. This is the kind of environment that Cube grew up in.
After we get all of these introductions, we finally see the characters together as Cube and Dre are working as DJs at a club. The place is packed, only they are not playing their kind of music and have to dress in shiny costumes as entertainers working for a company. When the boss leaves the place, however, the gloves come off. Dre calls up Cube and Cube starts rapping to the crowd. Easy E is in the audience and he hears it all. The next thing you know, they are at a recording studio together, with Easy E picking up the check. Only the guys who are there to do the singing think it’s all a big joke and can’t understand why anyone would care about Compton. This causes a fight between the two parties and the talent leaves the studio, not willing to work with our writers. Now it’s just our original crew. They encourage Easy E to take on the singing himself, and he does, although it takes a while for him to get it right. Watching all of the trial and error attempts turns out to be pretty funny, and the guys in the studio can’t help but crack up. One by one they are kicked out until it gets down to just Easy E and Dre, and that’s when things finally start to come together.
At first, the group just has that one song, that E recorded. They make as many copies of it as they can afford and send it out to all of the radio stations. And the song does well. Their voice is unique and they are rapping about things that nobody talks about. This brings them to the attention of Jerry (Paul Giamatti) who goes to find Easy E and make him a proposition. Jerry finds him at the record making building, while E is there to pick up some more copies of what they ordered. The two of them sit down together and Jerry tells Easy E exactly what he can do for their group. He can make them legitimate and big time. Sure, they can get some money on their own for what they are doing, but he can make them an establishment and get them contracts and deals.
And just like that, the boys start performing on a regular basis. We follow them from one concert to another, and eventually we get to a scene in Detroit, where the police sit them down before the show and try to give them a list of rules. Mainly, there is one song that the police just don’t want being played. The song is called “F the Police.” The group has already received a letter from the FBI about this song, threatening them over trying to incite violence. Now, hearing the rules and threats in person, just fuels the fire. Of course they sing the song at the concert and of course the police end the show and throw them all in the back of a van.
That doesn’t really stop the boys though. Their modo is that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and soon they are bigger than ever. That’s when Cube finally decides that something needs to change. Sure, all of the parties and hotels are amazing, but of the bunch of them, only Easy E is getting a real paycheck. He was the first one to sign, and so the whole thing is considered his label, while the others are barely getting paid at all. Cube walks away from the group and suddenly he and the others go from being friends to enemies, dissing each other on their new records. It starts with Cube being called Benedict Arnold, and then he fires right back on the next thing he comes out with. This leads to that scene where he is ripped off by the record company, trying to go it as an individual artist, and comes back with a baseball bat to set things right.
Meanwhile, the remaining group members are facing problems of their own. Dr. Dre hooks up with Sug Night, who wants to replace Jerry as the manager of the group. When Easy E is not okay with that, Sug Night calls E over to his house. That’s when Sug Night has his men beat Easy E down for not releasing Dre from his contract, to come and work with them. Easy E then shows up at Jerry’s place, telling Jerry he’s about to go murder Sug Night, and Jerry talks him out of it. This kind of violence is ongoing throughout the movie. As entertaining as it is, the one problem is that we are only seeing what the group members want us to see. They are the ones who made and produced the movie, and so the whole thing is from their point of view. Now, some of them are willing to admit their flaws, like that scene of Cube going ghetto on the record producer. But Dre is not. He comes off like an innocent bystander to all this, when really, he was just as bad as any of them. After Cube left the group, a woman named Dee Barnes interviewed him and then Dre ran into Barnes at a party where he proceeded to beat her up while his bodyguard held people back from trying to stop him. Stuff like that is nowhere to be found in this movie.
Other than that complaint, and that the movis is a little too long, it is definitely a good film. There’s a lot to like on the table here, including the way that the movie uses real news footage of reporters talking about the rappers. I also like the way we see the new blood coming in and get great impressions of guys like Snoop Dogg and Tupak Shakur. The movie also chronicles the Rodney King riots and what happens to Easy E with his getting AIDS (it conveniently leaves out the part about him sleeping with tons of women after he knew he had it, and infecting them.) Still, if looked at for what this movie is, and not what it isn’t (not looking at what is left out,) it’s a hell of a film. At times, it even feels kind of epic, really chronicling the story of how these guys came to be. I love the way it goes into detail with showing how things came about, such as watching Dre work out the keyboard melody to his biggest song, “Nuthin But A G Thang.” Watching this moment reminded me of watching Jim Morrison and his boys work out the original keyboard melody to Light My Fire in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors. Straight Outta Compton really tries to cover a lot, and gets pretty in detail with what they want to tackle. It turns out to be a pretty riveting film.