Straight Outta Compton is sprawling to the point where it begins to feel like its sputtering to the finish line. While it commits many of the same sins of other biographical films of influential artists, this one at least captures the specificity of time and place that birthed them. It’s in those moments that Straight Outta Compton is most vivid and entertaining, showcasing the police brutality and dearth of opportunities that fueled their music.
Sins of omission plague Straight Outta Compton. Not only are members like Arabian Prince, MC Ren, and DJ Yella given short shrift, seemingly trotted out only for group shots that transform them into superhuman figures marching to do combat with racist power structures, they’re non-existent as characters. Even worse is the complete lack of female characters of any depth or meaning. Most of the female bodies on display are purely for the male gaze, and the pioneering work of female artists like JJ Fad, who helped pave a way for NWA, is completely absent. No shock that Dr. Dre’s alleged past as a woman-beater is completely absent, he’s listed as one of the major producers.
If you can get past these problems, which are the major ones but not the only ones, then Straight Outta Compton has plenty of recommendations in store. Leading with a terrific ensemble, with truly great work done by Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E and O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing his real-life father, Ice Cube. Eazy-E gets the biggest story to play out, as he transforms from a drug dealer to acclaimed rapper to an early celebrity causality of AIDS, it’s one of the more dynamic and tragic modern stories in rock and roll history.
Speaking of modern history, while Straight Outta Compton traffics in many of the typical beats of these stories – shady management deals, rise and fall and redemption, in-fighting, mismanagement of funds – it is positively electric when it establishes a specificity of place and time. Was Compton of the 1980s so different from the political strife we’re seeing in Ferguson? The police brutality there needed a black lives matter movement, and a scene where they’re targeted in front of a recording studio is infuriating for how little change has occurred. NWA was only speaking truth to power, an ugly truth that a majority of the country didn’t want to see or couldn’t, and a scene where they witness their albums getting destroyed in protest before a concert is quietly powerful. It may not be one for the ages, but it’s important as documentation of recent history.
The cinematography from Matthew Libatique is evocative and moodier than the norm for films like this. Riots, raucous parties, the realities of life in the ghetto are deeply felt for a variety of reasons. Straight Outta Compton is only as good as any particular scene playing at the moment, and quite a few of them are knockout. The best may be the extended sequence at a Detroit concert in which they’re threated to not play “Fuck Tha Police,” do so anyway, and the concert descends into a hellscape.
Where it dips is in the scenes that feel more routine than anything else. Paul Giamatti manages to bring some depth and feeling to his questionable manager, and the script offers him some complexity, but it still feels like we’ve been here before. But a few scenes manage to capture the glory and joy in creating a work of art. Dre’s impromptu session with Snoop Dogg laying down the vocals for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” is a microcosm of improvisation leading to something of value. Or the first scene of Eazy-E’s awkward rap skills being finessed and honed by Dre’s guiding hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it is level of detail in documenting their creative process that much of the film sorely lacks.