STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON * * *
Starring Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, R. Marcos Taylor and Paul Giamatti. Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
“I felt that this was our very own cornpone treatment—and dare I say those corny movies like Pride of the Yankees are damned effective–and I loved it for that reason. We may not have overcome on the screen, but for a brief moment, I saw the old movies I loved get colorized. Finally, a bone of equality thrown our way.” – Odie Henderson on 42.
I thought a lot about my dear friend Odie’s “colorization” quip during Straight Outta Compton, a big, splashy, hugely entertaining Hollywood musical that’s blown the doors off the box office this past weekend, with good reason. The film is enormous fun to watch – full of electrifying numbers and gigantic, bold-stroke storytelling, teetering on melodrama and providing all the soapy satisfactions one could possibly ask for from an unabashedly old-fashioned MGM picture.
The punchline is that it’s about N.W.A. – kids, ask your parents what the acronym stands for – the angriest, sleaziest, most terrifying gangsta rap supergroup to burst out of the hip-hop explosion in the late nineteen-eighties. As a coddled white thirteen-year-old growing up in the suburbs, the first time I heard the song “Straight Outta Compton” it scared the living shit out of me.
Backed by Dr. Dre’s furious police-siren beats, we’re introduced to “crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube.” A few verses later arrives Easy-E, “a brother that’ll smother your mother, and make your sister think I love her.” Dangerous motherfuckers raising Hell — it was the most frightening song I’d ever heard, and also one of the greatest.
Children like me only ever saw brown folks on TV during The Cosby Show, so in a far less mediated age those albums by N.W.A. and Public Enemy were truly –as the artists themselves grew fond of calling them– “Black CNN.” They were how I learned about the collapsing inner cities and the crack epidemic, about police harassment and the insanely corrupt Rampart-era LAPD. When Rodney King and the L.A. riots happened a few years later, the only people caught off-guard were those who hadn’t been listening.
The records still hold up pretty well, too. Because one thing Straight Outta Compton makes abundantly clear, as Ferguson fills our headlines again, is just how little has changed.
The movie gives our heroes iconic superhero origin stories. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) sits at home dreaming all day with his turntables, deconstructing bass lines. Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson Jr., you-know-who’s actual son) school bus gets jacked by gun-waving gang-bangers from the Crenshaw Mafia. Then there’s Eazy (Jason Mitchell), the only actual gangsta in the group, slinging crack and narrowly escaping an ambush by virtue of an LAPD battering ram in the chilling, pre-credit sequence that lands like a bombshell. This isn’t your mother’s musical biopic.
Except actually it is, just titled a couple degrees to the left. Dre and Cube eventually talk money-man Eazy into cutting a single – which he has to be coached into rapping one line at a time – finally donning his sunglasses in the recording booth in order to triumphantly finish “Boyz in the Hood.” A star is born.
The tune catches the ear of showbiz washout Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, who after playing Dr. Eugene Landy in this past summer’s Love and Mercy has become the go-to conniving toad of music industry biopics across multiple generations) and we’re on our way.
Straight Outta Compton’s first hour and change is positively thrilling. The subversive kick comes from seeing these old Hollywood tropes applied to a situation in which cops are always the villains. There are constantly cruisers lurking, rolling up and then smacking our protagonists around for no reason other than that they happen to be black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The movie’s best sequence occurs early on, when N.W.A. is taking a break outside, having some snacks while recording their album in the lily-white neighborhood of Torrence. The local PD start batting ‘em around until Heller emerges – the white guy who has no clue that this goes on all the time. Horrified, he sputters about due process and lawyers and calling the mayor, generally making a bad situation worse, while his artists roll their eyes from face-down on the sidewalk in prone positions.
By the time they get back into the studio, Cube has a notebook full of lyrics for a new song called “Fuck Tha Police” and the gang blows it out in a magnificent, cathartic exorcism – super-conventionally staged a la the “Sherrie” number from Jersey Boys. It’s an insurrectionist anthem given the same treatment as your mom’s favorite tune from the soc-hop. This is crazy exciting and subversive, call it JERZ-E BOYZ.
Straight Outta Compton kinda goes on forever. Spanning ten years when two or three would probably have done the trick, the movie feels a need to squeeze in Suge Knight and Tupac and Snoop and a whole panorama of West Coast hip-hop-history before eventually dialing back down to some quiet, moving scenes between our three leads, because all is forgiven when the less talented and oft-demonized Eazy succumbs to AIDS.
Produced by Dre and Cube, it’s also exceptionally self-serving. The group’s virulent misogyny and homophobia are carefully elided, and things become so grandiose that at one point I expected it to end with Ice Cube being elected the first black President of the United States. But instead it ends with an ad for Beats by Dre headphones.
Yet I liked it anyways, thanks to scenes like the one late in the movie in which Eazy-E rolls up to his long-estranged friend Ice Cube at a club, and you can cut the tension with a knife.
ICE CUBE: “Heard you said my movie Boyz N’ The Hood was like an Afterschool Special?”
EAZY-E: “Nigga, you know how much I love Afterschool Specials.”
The two crack huge smiles, embrace, then share a drink. And you know how much I love backstage Hollywood musicals.