Mark Reviews Movies

Straight Outta Compton


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: F. Gary Gray

Cast: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, R. Marcos Taylor

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use)

Running Time: 2:27

Release Date: 8/14/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 13, 2015

Here is a movie that is ambitious in its scope but disappointingly limited in its goals. Straight Outta Compton begins as the biography of a music group. The movie details how five distinct musicians with similar worldviews and experiences temporarily put aside their individual egos and ambitions to form an influential group that helped to bring "reality rap," as they dubbed it, to the mainstream. Of course, as in almost every story about people with conflicting egos and ambitions, the endeavor falls apart.

That moment of separation, though, is really just the beginning for the movie's story, which, in covering a period from 1986 to 1996, proceeds to branch off into a trio of biographies of three of the group's members. It's also the point where the movie, which up until then has found a great deal of energy in dramatizing the collaborative creation of music, starts to spread itself far too thin. The screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff does a far better job creating a convincing narrative for five characters acting as a single, collective unit than it does tying together the separate narratives of three characters.

Once the group as we originally know it from the movie's story dissolves, so too does the movie's narrative cohesion and, surprisingly, distinctiveness. It's surprising because all three characters on whom the movie comes to focus have varying degrees of success and different hurdles to either fall victim to or overcome.

Each of the stories, though, feels the same, with the characters battling similar fights within the music industry. The only things that differentiate those stories are the faces and motives of the antagonists, as well as the ultimate outcome for one of these characters. Otherwise, it's a similar tale: This is an industry filled with backstabbers and power-mongers, who put business over artistry and only care about an artist for as long as he/she remains profitable. Also, make sure an attorney looks over any contract before you sign it, or you will end up spending a lot of time and effort arguing about contracts.

For a movie that dedicates a good amount of time fighting on the side of artistry, this turns out to be a pretty business-minded tale. This is a movie that spends a lot of time—albeit little effort—watching characters discuss, debate, regret, and get into actual fights over their contracts. The strategy quickly becomes repetitive, and it reduces the characters to people who seem to have no greater concern than ensuring that they're paid fairly for their work. Seemingly important things—such as their personal lives, criminal activity involving or surrounding them, and, no joke, a visit to the White House—are hinted at in brief scenes or snippets of throwaway dialogue.

It starts with such precision, too. The group is N.W.A. Of the five, who all come from the same gang-ridden and impoverished neighborhood in Compton, there are three primary characters. Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., playing the role of his father) is the lyricist. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) puts together the music. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is the front-man and owns the record label with the help of the group's manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Like the other members, the remaining two, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), have their names displayed via an on-screen title, before becoming little more than glorified background players.

Their music becomes, to say the least, controversial in certain circles. News reports tell of suburban (read: "white") youngsters being exposed to rap about crime and drugs. A Detroit cop warns the group that the performance of one particular song, which he calls "Eff the Police," in his presence will result in the group's arrest. Someone from the FBI sends them a letter, threatening some kind of action if they continue to incite hatred against law enforcement.

The group, of course, has good reason for the song. Their shared experience with the police is a story of faces slammed against the hoods of squad cars and pavement for no reason, except that they were standing where the police just happened to be. Amidst the concerts and parties, there's a real sense of the need to share that experience, along with the rage at the injustice of it all. Director F. Gary Gray gets that point across with clarity and urgency. The screenplay also sees the group as being clever about the attention (since there's no such thing as bad publicity) and smart about framing the debate as an issue of free speech.

Then the squabbling over contracts begins, with Cube being the first to suspect that something is amiss with Jerry's business plan. He leaves the group (There's a very funny sequence involving dueling insults through lyrics, although Cube's are far more specific and extensive), and without the united front of the group, the individual stories descend into melodrama. Cube finds that success isn't all it's cracked up to be. Dre must contend with his new business partner Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who treats his record label as a shield for harassment and violence. Eazy faces financial ruin and declining health.

They spend the rest of the movie sentimental about the past and wondering at what could have been. That, too, is how we experience the later parts of Straight Outta Compton.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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