Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Compton' recounts N.W.A's rise and fall

F. Gary Gray’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ has some music biography cliches, but it recaptures the raging, raunchy energy of N.W.A.’s cultural moment

"Straight Outta Compton"
"Straight Outta Compton"Read moreUniversal Pictures

THOSE WHO grew up watching Ice Cube play genial sitcom dads in movies like "Are We There Yet?" may be shocked by the fellow they meet in "Straight Outta Compton."

Young, angry, bouncing up and down on stage and blaring out the lyrics to the anthem "F--- the Police."

The movie takes pains to show how the teenaged Ice Cube developed that point of view - harassed by the Daryl Gates-era LAPD on his own street, pushed to the pavement by cops while taking a smoke break outside a music studio.

The famous Ice Cube scowl, now played for laughs in comedies, is a serious thing in "Compton." And it's unmistakably and eerily his - he's played by his look-alike son O'Shea Jackson Jr., a dead ringer for dad, just possibly a better actor.

In the movie's rousing "origins story" opening section, we see how "F--- the Police" became the group's signature song - a calling card that heralded a new and volatile version of hip-hop, instantly and wildly popular.

Pundits called it "gangsta" rap but Cube and cohorts Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren preferred "reality rap," an art form meant to capture and reflect life in South Central Los Angeles.

No matter the term, cops hated it, wanted the song banned - sometimes confronting the group on stage. "Straight Outta Compton" concert scenes capture the raw, dangerous excitement of this heady place - one that also marks a pinnacle between N.W.A's rapid rise from obscurity and its rapid descent into acrimony.

Just months earlier, N.W.A. is a half-dozen amateur rappers playing open mic night at an L.A. roller rink. Here, "Straight Outta Compton" is at its best - raucous, funny, fueled by terrific chemistry among the leads.

Jackson as Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dre, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. They are the driving forces here - Dre scratching records at clubs, Ice Cube writing lyrics and performing, Eazy-E using the ill-got gains from his drug-dealing enterprises to fund early records and demos.

"Straight Outta Compton" re-creates West Coast hip-hop's lively formative years (small roles for actors playing Tupac, Snoop Dogg, etc.), but soon a standard musical biopic storyline asserts itself, heralded by the arrival of a stock character - the shady record-industry executive.

Embodied here by the person of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who released and promoted "Straight Outta Compton," dealt in financial matters exclusively with Eazy-E, to the exasperation of a suspicious Ice Cube, who felt that he and other members of the group were being ripped off.

That record-biz BS was a source of N.W.A.'s disintegration is doubtless true, but it nonetheless takes "Straight Outta Compton" straight out of Compton, and into the dull echelons of corporate suites.

Heller occupies far too large a presence in the movie, and as a character exists in too narrow a range - wounded, whiney, manipulative.

Also, what's that on Giamatti's head? Is it the worst hairpiece in the history of cinema?

It might be.

Henceforth, Giamatti should be hired to stand next to Donald Trump to make the latter's hair look plausible, even presidential.

F. Gary Gray also has been accused of placing a toupee of sorts over some of N.W.A.'s bald-faced excesses. Women comprise a semi-nude harem in the movie, and homophobic lyrics show up matter-of-factly - Ice Cube's "No Vaseline" is presented as the creative/comic zenith of the infamous dissing contest that attended the group's demise.

Violence is mostly assigned to producer Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who signed Dre away from Heller, used threats and intimidation and sometimes a baseball bat, and is depicted here as a dangerous psychopath.

Given the celebrated nature of the N.W.A. break-up, it's strange that this section of the movie feels so perfunctory.

But this may reflect the commercial reality of getting things done. The N.W.A. biopic rose and fell a dozen times. To make it happen, Gray had to mediate six sets of lawyers representing half a dozen interested parties - all wealthy and powerful and litigious.

Given these constraints, it is to his credit that he got "Straight Outta Compton" out of development hell, and into theaters, where his movie reaches back and recaptures the energy of N.W.A.'s raging, raunchy cultural moment.