REVIEW: Straight Outta Compton – Does The Movie Have Attitude?
By Anton Constantinou
Straight Outta Compton is the place pretty much every twenty something cinema-goer up and down the country longed to be from as the N.W.A. biopic hit UK screens last Friday
The high energy flick makes life on the mean streets of South Central L.A look so damn badass, you can’t help but lust after a ride on a bouncing Cadillac, or an invitation to a pool party packed with scantily clad bodies.
Beneath the glitz and glamour however, is a poignant rags to riches story about growing up in the ghetto and making big in the music business. Central to that focus are 5 aspiring artists who combine to form legendary gangster rap group Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes – better known as N.W.A. The famous five are Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren. Dre makes the beats, Yella spins the decks, Cube and Ren spit the bars, and Eazy- E manages the operations. Recognised as one the most controversial hip hop groups of all time, their music glorified drugs, sex and violence and crime. Active between the mid 80s and early 90s, they offered a voice of rebellion to young African Americans suffering at the hands at the hands of police law enforcement. Most notable in this period of civil unrest are the Rodney King assault and subsequent L.A riots- events which the group both spoke out against and perpetuated through their protest raps.
The film begins in 1986 – the year the group first started out. A young Cube, Yella and Dre are introduced to us a hungry street kids searching for an outlet to their creative juices amid the daily grind of gangs, guns and police harassment. Eazy E is then thrown into the equation – as the dope dealing backer who secures the group a record deal with Ruthless. As chance would have it, he makes the acquaintance of Music Manager and Businessman, Jerry Heller- played by the ever impressive, Paul Giamatti. As one of the few only white characters in a film so acutely hung up on black subordination, Heller is quickly established as a powerful authority figure. He’s the guy the group so desperately need to open doors and “block out the noise”, as he puts it.
Proving his worth, he sets up a meet and greet for them with Bryan Turner-co-founder of Universal owned record label, Priority Records. Bryan is much the same as Heller: a silver tongued white manager ready to exploit the group for personal gain.To lure them in, he boasts that his last act, California Raisins, went gold. Sold on a dream of fame and fortune, the group sign to Priority and set work on churning out hits. With stardom though comes fall outs and betrayal: Eazy and Heller cheat the band out of contracts; Heller double- crosses Eazy; Eazy fires Heller; Bryan tries to slick talk his way out of paying Cube; Cube retaliates by smashing up his office with a baseball bat.
In the midst of the feuding, some impressive battle raps are thrown back and forth from rival members of the group. The first leave to Ruthless, Ice Cube is labelled a traitor and likened to Benedict Arnold. He responds by releasing the inflammatory diss track, No Vaseline – on it he bashes all of N.W.A, and even goes so far as to make an anti Semitic remark about Heller. With tempers flared and the group at breaking point, the implication is that things can only get worse. Any small victory Eazy may have made in firing Heller, is quickly cancelled out by him contracting AIDS and later dying in a coma. The film ends with Dre making the all important move of leaving Death Row Records to start up his own label: Aftermath- The same label which Eminem would later sign to and release multi platimum album, The Slim Shady LP on.
Straight Outta Compton is as visually stunning as it is thought provoking. A self conscious epic, driven by legacy preservation, it reflects both the good and bad side and growing up in the hood and embarking on a rap career. We get the smiles and laughter as the group grow in stature; but also the pain and suffering as greed sets in and gets the better of them. In the bits in between, police interference continues to rock the crew back and forth between the ghetto and bright lights of L.A – acting as catalyst to their success, both also adding fuel to the fire.
For all its stand-out moments, there’s a few scenes in particular which really caught our attention. An early high angle shot of Dre, laid on his back , eyes closed, headphones on, listening to Everybody Loves the Sunshine by Roy Ayers, offers telling insight into the mind of one of hip hop’s biggest producers of all time. As sunlight fills the room and the camera descends on Dre’s face, the impression given is that hip hop will offer a solipistic escape from the dark reality of life in Compton. The live performance of Fu** the Police is equally compelling. The riotous crowd, thumping bass and tracking shots of police closing in on the stage account for some of the greatest tension in the film. Perodic run ins with police scale new heights with when the group are cornered outside their recording studio. Coming to their defence, the unsuaully sympathic Heller barks at the feds for apprehending his team for no apparent reason and threatens to take legal action. Its in this moment that the dichotomy between white power and black submission becomes most apparent- under the influence of a white manger, Dre and co are elevated from gangbangers to artists.
Director, F. Gary Gray (best known for Friday, Law Abiding Citizen and his work on music videos) brings an athletic urgency and mounting energy to the film, fitting to its life-in-the-fast-lane story. For most part, the camerawork looks like it’s been pulled from a boxing movie, as it bobs and weaves through from the streets to the studio, and zooms in on the eyes of its cast members as they scuffle with an intimidate one another. Score wise, the film the mixes old and new rap with 70s and 80s funk and soul to illustrate the transition of hip hop from a sample medium to a genre in its own right.
What really makes the film though is the acting. Rarely do you see a real life star being played by a family member of theirs, but Ice Cube’s son O’ Shea Jackson Jnr does an excellent job of depicting his dad during his N.W.A years. Corey Hawkins, R.Marcos Taylor and Marcc Rose are as convincing in their roles Dre, Suge and 2pac. The show stealer though is Giametti. The empathic Heller he plays lends the film a certain warmth and depth in its most grittiest moments. Yes the film overlooked misogyny; and yes it could have gone into greater detail about Eazy’s life, but at 2 1/2 hours long, Gray’s done a bloody good job of tackling the central story with precision and energy.
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