Straight Outta Compton fails to register as much more than a feature length episode of Behind The Music, but even as bloated television fodder it is the best Entourage movie you’ll see all year. Following the pioneering gangster rap group N.W.A., from inception through to break-up and beyond, director F. Gary Gray proves adept at guiding his cast of relative unknowns through a gripping and unexpectedly heart-wrenching re-enactment that’s greatest achievement is never betraying the actors’ awareness that they are merely checking off bullet points in history. It deserves to be mentioned here at the start, that O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell do not merely transform into Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E respectively, but they become the heart and soul of an otherwise lifeless and by-the-numbers bit of revisionist history, elevating the film from the routine to the intensely watchable.
Clocking in at 150 minutes, there is the illusion that a lot of ground will be covered, but Gray wisely uses the length to give the film a significant amount of breathing room during the first hour, to allow his characters to build their relationships organically, and grow into N.W.A. as an inevitable collision of passion, ambition and opportunity, instead of merely taking history for granted. And that’s really where Compton excels throughout, in the small, quiet moments of friends bonding, creating art and reacting to the world around them, where an increasingly incendiary environment of police brutality and racial profiling builds historically to the Los Angeles riots, but which nevertheless echoes the country’s very current struggles with racial inequality. In that sense Gray makes a play for timelessness, but the real emotional resonance occurs in the anecdotal moments when Eazy-E is behind the mic for the first time trying to correctly enunciate the lyric “Cruisin’ down the street in my ’64,” or when Cube is inspired to pen “Fuck The Police,” or when Eazy-E and MC Ren are a captive audience listening to Cube’s epic diss “No Vaseline,” after parting ways with the group. It’s moments like this that reveal the men who make up the myth, the humanity behind the legend, and the heart behind the fury, more so than any perfunctory social relevance. These are the moments that make the 150 minutes fly by, and it’s the dedication and commitment from the actors that make it all believable, transcending the film’s VH1 trappings.
It’s unfortunate then that the film overall is not a homerun. It ends rather abruptly, ignoring the emotional closure brought about by Eazy-E’s death from AIDS, in favor of limping onto an anti-climatic, self-congratulatory final moment that introduces a very wrongheaded victory lap of a closing credit sequence that inundates the audience with visual reminders of the near billionaire status of some of the group’s surviving members, whether in shots of the real Dre bobbing his Beats-adorned head or the larger-than-life “P.G.A.” after Ice Cube’s name, that serves to cast much of the film in a different light. There’s something slightly disingenuous about glamorizing the group being thrown in the back of a paddy wagon after deliberately taunting police at a concert in Detroit, and turning a moment into comic relief that is a harsh reality even today for people who are not privileged enough to have hit records. There’s a whiff of a corruption here, that is far worse than if the film would have been content to merely retread melodramatic re-enactments.
Ultimately Straight Outta Compton lingers hollow in the memory, as a totem of its creators’ platinum status, and yet another excuse to separate true fans from their hard-earned dollars — to experience history, not necessarily as it happened, but as Dre and Cube want it to be remembered, and F. Gary Gray is all too happy to oblige, a perfectly transparent director who except for one hilarious long take during a hotel party, channels his talents as a filmmaker towards helping his actors be the best they can be. If there’s any real truth in Compton it lies in these young men; their approach to this material not that far removed from how their real life counterparts approached their art several decades ago. For all its bluster Straight Outta Compton makes one thing painfully clear; there could never be another N.W.A.
The Verdict: Rave