Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Straight Outta Compton" Review: An Often Times Fascinating Look At The Rise Of The Gangsta Rap Empire


As a child of the 80's it was difficult to not be aware of the ongoing war between the rising popularity of gangsta rap music and the powers that be. As kids we didn't care that the lyrics were combative or otherwise dangerous to anyone or anything, these rising talents were the voice of an entire generation and we were ready to listen. While we knew most of the facts about their rise to fame we never had the full picture...until now. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime:  2 hr 27 min
Studio: Universal Pictures
Release Date: August 14, 2015

Biases:  
Loves:True stories
Likes: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, N.W.A., rap music
Neutral:  A lot of events were stuffed into this still long movie
Hates: That we didn't get to see West side versus East side more
A sequel in the works?: Yup, you better believe it.


Before there was Kanye, Eminem or Puff Daddy there were the original gangsta rappers known as the N.W.A. (I will let you look up what that stands for). In the late 1980's three friends straight out of Compton California, O'Shea Jackson a.k.a. Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), Andre Young a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eric Wright a.k.a. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) applied their troubled street lives to a form of music that changed the landscape of the business forever. Their sudden rise to fame and fortune wasn't easy though as each key member of the music act faced uphill battles as a group and as individuals. Their lives and the music industry as a whole would never be the same.

Biographical films about a famous musician are generally the same rags to riches story we hear time and time again. Sure most of them have their differences depending on the environment that person comes from but never before has a group of musicians reached the same amount of fame nor the same amount of controversy than the founding members of the N.W.A., the world's very first gangsta rappers who were clearly more inclined to be gangstas than they ever were rappers despite their unqualified talents for the art.


Much like an artist that chooses graffiti over creating gallery pieces, the N.W.A. wasn't exactly what many considered real music. It was angry, it was politically charged and more importantly it was deeply personal to each and every member of the group but even more so to a legion of fans who were able to relate to and embrace their non-violent lyrical protest. So much so in fact that each member was more than willing to sacrifice themselves just to get their message out there which more often than not ended up being the case. But these weren't political activists, these were just a group of kids off the streets who almost accidentally became their generation's outspoken voice of the people and despite a number of obstacles (mostly placed by themselves) they fought the odds and came out on top.

Most any child from the 80's knows the basics regarding N.W.A. as their struggle for fame and fortune was not only well documented in the nightly news feed but also in our homes with their albums and even in our schools with their controversies (these were the guys that established Raiders gear as gang related material). Straight Outta Compton succeeds at recreating the tensions and ignorance of that time but the true win for this surprisingly in depth examination of the world's very first hardcore rap group is by going beyond what we already know and showing the little details that took place with a whole other context.


Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E are depicted here as just regular kids (regular for Compton circa 1987 that is) looking to earn some respect and maybe a little cash on the side. Using their combined efforts they are able to put together a hit single that catches the attention of seasoned music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) which launches their modest dreams into the stratosphere. From there we witness the rise of the N.W.A. and the sudden downfall as each member peels away from Eazy's new musical empire and follow their own destinies with both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre pioneering the rap music industry as Eazy-E struggles to keep holding on to something that despite him writing the check for it, was never really his to begin with.

That is the story we already knew, however Straight Outta Compton and long time Ice Cube collaborator director F. Gary Gray (he directed Ice Cube's first production "Friday" in 1995) shows us for the first time that these three guys (save for maybe Dr. Dre) were gangsters first and musicians second which led to the infamous music turf wars which started in the streets of L.A. and eventually spread to the east coast spawning the legendary east coast versus west coast battle which would ultimately claim the lives of Dr. Dre protege Tupac Shakur and later Biggie Smalls. These guys were good at making music that spoke to the people but they were even better at making music their weapons of choice.


That is the greatest strength of the film, its ability to shine a light on what these guys were trying to do as oppose to showing us what they did. It's a minor distinction between the two but an important one and one that firmly places Straight Outta Compton on the top tier of a long list of similarly themed biographical films about the music industry. While it isn't played for laughs exactly, there is something inherently comical about a group of street hustlers and thugs throwing insults at one another through their songs as if they were pulling a drive-by and tossing cds out their windows instead of bullets.

Tying all this together is fantastic ensemble cast full of mostly unknowns in the lead roles. Casting Ice Cube's son as his father was a stroke of genius as he not only has the acting chops like his old man but is an uncanny doppelganger for a young Mr. Jackson that will likely have audiences doing double takes all throughout the film. Likewise for Hawkins and Mitchell as Dre and Eazy-E, while they don't share any family bonds with either of their real life counterparts you will wonder how they found actors who not only looked the part but had were able to deliver performances that do the legacy of these guys justice.


This is easily one of the best films of the year and its immense commercial success along with all the critical praise it has received is a testament to the raw talent they used to hijack the music industry which over three decades later is still growing every day. If you don't know their story or even if you thought you did, Straight Outta Compton is a must see for anyone who loves music, the freedom of speech or just loves a fascinating rags to riches tale that not only makes for an entertaining time at the movies but serves as a stark reminder to everyone out there who the real grandfathers of modern day rap are.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Straight Outta Compton came straight outta nowhere this summer season. While it was never expected to be a bomb the sheer staying power of the film is almost as impressive as the story it tells. Over 30 years ago N.W.A. ruled the billboards and now with the release of their biopic they have successfully ruled the box office as well. I might be going out on a limb here but I think Eazy-E would be proud of what his two friends have accomplished in his absence. Early Oscar contender of the year? Yes, I think so.

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