“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
The story of NWA is so insane, operatic, inspiring, and horrifying that it was pretty much guaranteed to be the stuff of stirring cinema someday. Well, that day is here thanks to Straight Outta Compton, a grand, colourful, 150-minute blockbuster version of the story of a few angry kids with big talents who could. When the movie is at it’s best (as in say the first 70 minutes or so), it’s a pretty excellent and depressingly socially relevant tale. When the movie is at it’s worst (like most of the second 70 minutes of the running time), it struggles to contain it’s ambitions, focusing too much on contract disputes, and glossing over all of the least flattering elements of the story for the benefit of surviving and most famous members of the group (who also just happened to be producers). Ah well, at least the good outweighs the bad.
Things kick off with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) getting caught up in a drug deal gone wrong that leads riot gear, angry dogs, and a destroyed living room. With that the tone is set and we get the usual “get to know ya” set up to a music biopic. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is the musical genius with the beats and the brains and the vision to create a whole new type of music. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s eldest son) is the angry young genius who writes the words and delivers the attitude. Eazy-E bankrolls it all with his drug money and keeps it real. There are other NWA members, but don’t worry about hearing much from them. There’s simply not enough screentime to go around so they just dip in and out of the background much like the Snoop and Tupac lookalikes who pop up for a few seconds.
The band forms from something real and honest, but producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in the worst wig of his career) sees real money and brings them to the masses. As they record the first NWA record, the discrimination the men face from police and much of society feels visceral and the music a natural expression of their frustration. As they tour, fame and success comes hand-in-hand with arrests, FBI threats, and discrimination. It’s pretty powerful stuff that’s quite well executed by director F. Gary Gray (the man behind Friday doing his best Scorsese impression here) and an immensely talented cast. Then the usual rifts form in the group in the usual ego-driven ways and the movie gradually falls apart. There are many high points from then on for sure. The way R. Marcos Taylor emerges as a friend-turned-monster as Suge Knight is handled fairly well, the montage of beef-tracks between the group as solo artists makes for a damn fun sequence, and the way the NWA’s music and the issues they raise factors into the Rodney King incident and subsequent LA riot is sensitively and powerfully presented.
The problem with Straight Outta Compton is ultimately that the filmmakers have too much story to tell for a single feature and co-producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre try to keep things a little too clean. It’s sad to see the movie devolve into tedious arguments about contracts (well, aside from Ice Cube’s baseball bat negotiation scene). Likewise, the decision to use Eazy-E’s death as a structural hinging point in the third act might have been good for narrative economy, but also leads the film to devolve into music biopic clichés straight outta Walk Hard. Much of the darker beats in Dre’s later life are ignored to make him seem like a good guy poisoned by Suge’s presence and Ice Cube essentially disappears from the story at a certain point since he was off in another world. It feels like the back half of the movie was chopped to bits with obvious ADR lines desperately trying to condense and connect scenes. The last 40 minutes or so of the movie feel pretty darn awkward in ways that clearly weren’t intentional.
Still, as frustrating as it is that certain material was glossed over and as irritating as it can be to see paint-by-numbers musical biopic clichéd writing drag things down, Straight Outta Compton has an undeniable power and significant entertainment value. This is after all a pretty fascinating story and one that comes laced with bitter commentary on police brutality that’s quite possibly even more relevant today. This is probably the best this movie could have been while trying to tell an entire labyrinthine tale of NWA with the involvement of surviving members who come to the movie with their own point of view and understandable interest in looking good. There’s a chance that in a few decades this tale will be spun in a more honest and efficient way, but even if that doesn’t happen, a pretty damn good NWA movie exists and that’s sure as shit something that most people alive in the 90s never imagined possible. That’s gotta count for something, right?
As expected, Universal Studios have delivered a damn pretty Blu-ray for Straight Outta Compton. The transfer is beautifully crisp and clear, while the audio mix really shines, delivering iconic music with gut-punch fidelity and clarity. The disc also features an “Unrated Director’s Cut” of the film, but anyone (like myself) hoping that it might fix the glossed-over problems of the theatrical will be disappointed. Sadly, this version is merely 20 minutes longer, not a radically different version. I suppose the second half isn’t quite as choppy in this form, but the simplistic morality slapped onto NWA remains. Too bad, but given that the movie was a hit, we were never going to get a radically different version.
The special feature section is plentiful, if slight. A few additional deleted scenes are available as well as six 2-8-minute featurettes. Half of these featurettes are about the film’s production and the other half feature original NWA members sharing memories. They’re all pretty fun to watch and professionally produced, but too fast and choppy to deliver much insight. Sadly, the Blu-ray producers’ concerns about appealing to a low attention span audience robbed viewers of a chance of getting an “in-their-own-words” documentary about NWA to run alongside the feature film (Perhaps that’s being saved for a future special edition release. That would certainly make sense). The most substantial special feature is a commentary from director F. Gary Gray who gets into great detail about the challenges of getting the film to the screen that’s quite entertaining and enlightening.
Does it deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Overall, this a damn strong Blu-ray presentation of an unexpected blockbuster that actually deserved it’s late summer success.