Musical biopics are largely centered around the deconstruction of an artist. Walk the Line and Ray, biopics buoyed by amazing central performances, desperately seek an understanding of their subject without truly examining their cultural impact. We see a glorious ascension and a disastrous fall, with the latter usually initiated by drugs and excessive sex. Dissecting the complexities of a musical genius loses favor to convention in the aforementioned films. Very few biopics deviate from the norm. Todd Haynes’ excellent, irreverent Bob Dylan film- I’m Not There– is an exception to the rule, staking its claim as the best musical biopic in the last decade. That is until F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton came into view, challenging Hayne’s dizzying cinematic effort. For those not in the know, Straight Outta Compton tells the tale of N.W.A., a rap super group that brought hyper realistic verses to the masses.
Led by the incomparable and overly confident Dr.Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy- E (Jason Mitchell), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) , N.W.A. vividly recounted inner city living and clashes with authority figures through piercing and violent raps. Their abrasive style caught the ear of longtime record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) from the beginning, who saw commercial potential in this combustible group. The only issue is Heller was a manipulative troll fixated on harnessing ego and fame as tools for self-enrichment. Contract and trust issues dissolved the once cohesive unit into warring factions, leaving Eazy-E at odds with the men he once called brothers. But before trouble surfaced, the group delivered performances that many felt threatened the moral fabric of America. Censorship was never an option for the group, especially when much of their anger and vitriol emanated from faux indiscriminate police searches and police brutality towards African-Americans. Their music, whether you agree with the content or not, encapsulated a dark, violent time in America, especially as it pertained to the criminal justice system.
Beginning in 1986 with their formation and leading up to Eazy-E’s death in 1995, Straight Outta Compton isn’t an exhaustive study of the group, but is one that impressively explores their creation and death. Admittedly, the screenplay sidesteps much of the group’s unsavory behavior, namely their misogynistic, homophobic and violent themes, but it perfectly captures their evolving dynamic as a group. Told through a collection of vignettes, Straight Outta Compton thrusts us into the group’s short lived existence. We’re there when they discover Eazy-E’s delivery in a hand crafted studio. We’re there when Detroit’s boys in blue threaten to shut down their concert if they perform the song “Fuck Tha Police.” We’re there when all the members decide it’s time to turn their backs. Where most biopics mutate into boring checklists, Straight Outta Compton explores the world that created N.W.A., and the seismic impact N.W.A had on the world. Director F. Gary Gray is nothing short of confident. His camera moves with swagger when the boys defiantly raise their middle fingers to authority, and is appropriately grounded when personal struggles undermine street cred. The energy he generates in the concert scenes alone is absolutely astounding.
The actors at his disposal also give the film an irresistible charm and necessary credibility. The latter is especially important because a lot of biopics simply boil down to hollow mimicry. Each actor embodies his real lifecounterpart, embracing their entire being. Everyone is great, especially Giamatti in a role that allows him to chew scenery, but the true standout is Mitchell as Eazy-E. Mitchell easily replicates Eazy’s mercurial personality and distinct voice. He has the bravado, but also hints at the insecurities that prevented Eazy-E from seeing the fault in his choices. It’s a monumental performance from a movie that is stunning and surprising in every way. Straight Outta Compton fiercely captures the genesis of a group that not only laid the foundation for present day rap, but exposed a part of American culture the masses weren’t able to experience. With its depiction of police brutality and social inequity, Straight Outta Compton, much like its subjects, is as urgent as it is timeless.