From the Archives: Straight Outta Compton review

From the Archives: Straight Outta Compton review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

It’s been days since I stepped out of the theater for Straight Outta Compton, and I’m still high on the film’s crackling energy. My toe has been tapping all day, and when I went for my evening run, I did so to the soothing(?) sounds of N.W.A. It’s about time the world of rap got a proper biopic, and despite falling into the same melodramatic trappings as other cinematic tales of legendary musicians, Straight Outta Comptonserves its subject well, and couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Mc Ren, and DJ Yella are the young men at the core of N.W.A., the influential music group that rose to prominence in the early 90s, and helped spawn the genre of “gangster rap.” Detractors claim that their music inspires violence and crime, but to misquote the Ice Cube of the film, N.W.A. writes about “the world we see.” By sharing the perspective of the disadvantaged black youth in the veritable war zone that was Los Angeles at the time, the group brought fresh eyes to dire circumstances, and in doing so, challenged (and in many cases, beat) the system which breeds the problems inherent in their lives, as well as the lives of others.

The story of N.W.A. is a powerful reminder of what can be accomplished when the bold embrace their right to free speech. Sadly, in seeing the story told today, it’s also a sobering reminder of how far we still need to come. When the characters of the film are being harassed by cops, it looks identical to what I see on the news today. It’s sad, for sure, but it’s all the more reason why Straight Outta Compton is poised to resonate hard with audiences.

Across the board, the performances are all good to great, with Jason Mitchell’s Eazy-E as the standout. A lot of very notable faces are portrayed by actors in this movie, and I applaud whoever did the casting. Not only do each of the actors look remarkably like their real life counterparts, they also embody them in a way that isn’t simple impersonation. There’s a scene with a young Snoop (Doggy) Dogg, arguably hip-hop’s most broadly recognizable face, and even though it’s not Snoop, it is absolutely Snoop. Yes, Ice Cube’s son (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is naturally going to look more like his character than the rest, but even so his performance is exceptional.

This is Paul Giamatti’s second slimy music producer role of the year (the other being Love & Mercy). His performance here is a little less explicitly villainous – we get the sense that Jerry Heller isn’t a bad guy, but he is a businessman – and ends up drawing a fair amount of the film’s humor.

Much like Love & Mercy, the actors only half-perform the music. In both films, the audio seamlessly transitions from the actor to the original album recordings. Before this year, I had never seen this done, but I really like it. It keeps the music “real” within the film without betraying our own sense of realism through impersonation.

I can’t fight the feeling that some liberties were likely taken with the story, especially regarding Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, both of whom were producers on the film, but nonetheless, it’s no different than literally any other music biopic. There’s a small side plot regarding young Dre’s role as a father. His familial obligations are lightly introduced, but are brushed aside in a haze of “gotta let me be me!” that, even though he does eventually become Dr. Dre, didn’t feel earned. I don’t even think his on-screen child has a name. Anyhow, it’s small potatoes, especially in a film tasked with telling the stories of five main characters (ok, three – Ren and Yella are largely sidelined). At close to two hours, a subplot about child support would weigh the film down.

soc-postAnd that’s what is keeping me reeling: the energy. From the opening montage of character introductions, through the exponentially explosive performances, and into the behind-the-music melodrama, the film opens up at a clip and never stops for a second. When the credits rolled I was equal measures of inspired and energized – a potent combo. I felt the despair that so many of the social problems depicted on screen are still happening, but I felt the hope that these problems can be toppled. If a group of kids can come from next to nothing and, in their own unique way, change the world, then anything is possible.

Straight Outta Compton opens today in Philly area theaters.

Official site.

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