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Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton Directed by F. Gary Gray In Theatres But first, let's jump into the wayback machine. It's August of 1988. I'm in a shopping mall record store. I'm flipping through the new releases.
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Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
In Theatres

But first, let's jump into the wayback machine.

It's August of 1988. I'm in a shopping mall record store. I'm flipping through the new releases. In June Public Enemy had released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Don't Believe the Hype and Bring the Noise had been pounding woofers into submission for a couple of months now. But nothing, nothing at all could prepare me for what would happen 5 minutes after I walked into that record store with its formica counter tops and pressboard walls. I remember flipping through the records when I felt the world tilt on its axis and I thought the ground was going to give out from under me and I was going to fall into a pit of my own lameness. I remember holding Straight Outta Compton and staring into the faces of N.W.A. for the first time. The photograph was taken from the ground staring helplessly skywards at the street hardened faces of N.W.A. A gun is pointed. The eyes are not angry or passive, they're just cold. 

No other album cover has rocked my world the way that album cover did. Things I remember: Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised started playing in my head. My palms got very, very sweaty. Butterflies were vomiting in my stomach. It was the first time I had ever held something that so encapsulated what rock and roll was supposed to be. This was Danger. This was Fear. This was Violence. There was no doubt, to me, at that moment, months before I would hear the press say it, that this was the world's most dangerous group. Flipping the album over, seeing the song titles, seeing what N.W.A. was short for, just confirmed that this was An Important Moment In My Life. The only thing I could compare it to was dropping the needle on Never Mind The Bullocks for the first time. The world was so much larger than I had previously considered. And I hadn't heard a single note yet. 

In the following years this would happen: N.W.A. would tear itself to pieces. Eazy-E would die at 31. Dr. Dre would become one of the most influential producers and talent scouts and headphone designers and entrepreneurs ever. Ice Cube would star in some family friendly movies and have his picture taken with members of the LAPD, smiles all around. Millions of people would delay starting missions in GTA: San Andreas because Express Yourself was playing on the in-game radio and we didn't want to miss it. And N.W.A. would be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

And here we are, in 2015, and N.W.A. is the subject of a major studio bio-pic. 

I was worried going into Straight Outta Compton. Bio-pics are by their nature a quick and short overview of a life, hitting the high points, jamming song titles and references to pop-culture icons into conversations that probably never happened, glossing over or just ignoring uncomfortable truths. And Straight Outta Compton is just as guilty as every other bio-pic. Dre's attack on Dee Barnes, or any of his history of hitting women is left out. None of Eazy-E's seven children makes an appearance and only one is mentioned. Cube's Disney movies never make an appearance. But, back when I saw American Sniper in February, I wrote that any film that is inspired by or based on real events is a fiction based on fact. The truth can be found in the ideas presented, I said, in the shadows of the story. I even quoted Stephen King, "fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie."

So, like American Sniper before it, don't go to Straight Outta Compton expecting the reality of N.W.A. Go for the truth that is found in the story of a group of young black men trying to survive in Compton, trying to survive international success, trying to survive each other. 

And, friends and neighbours, that is where Straight Outta Compton excels. This is, honestly, one hell of a movie. The story is universal, the performances are off the charts good, the direction exciting and it looks and sounds great. This is one of the best music bio-pics, yet. As much warmth as I have for Walk The Line, it never moved me to tears. Yeah. I said it. Straight Outta Compton got me right in the feels. It is 24 Hour Party People good. It is Control good. 

Straight Outta Compton covers 10 years, from 1986 to Dre leaving Death Row Records in 1996. We're introduced to our main players as they're trying to make their way through Compton's many minefields. Eric Wright aka Eazy-E in a nightmare of a dopehouse deal gone bad when CRASH comes to call. Andre Young aka Dr. Dre losing himself to the music while his mother tries to raise a family on her own. O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube, a kid scribbling words in a notebook riding a school bus when a local gangster climbs aboard and delivers a motivational speech to the kids while waving a gun around. The introductions serve not only as introductions to the characters but they introduce the wider audience, us in the flyover spots on the map, to the other star of this movie - Compton itself. The many complicated sides of Compton are shown here, the violence, the families trying to make headway in a system stacked against them, the casual racism of the LAPD grabbing kids just trying to walk home. 

And let us now discuss the performances. A bio-pic, especially a bio-pic about such complicated and iconic and exaggerated public personalities as N.W.A. lives and dies on the performances. We really don't want someone to just impersonate the look and sound of the person they're playing. Joaquin Phoenix was great as Johnny Cash, not because he looked and talked like him. Hell, he's like six inches shorter than Cash and his voice is about two octaves higher. But he captured the self-doubt and vulnerability behind the wall of confidence that Cash portrayed to the world. And that's where Straight Outta Compton wins again. The young cast is, every single one of them, outstanding, awesome, amazing, and any other word you can think of when you're trying to find synonyms for awesome. 

Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O'Shea Jackson, Jr as his dad, they all deliver career changing performances. Hell, all the performances, across the board, are great. R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight is a force of nature. Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller turns in another great Paul Giamatti performance. He could have just played Heller as scheming and greedy, but he goes deeper than that. I wish the film could've been another hour or more longer so we could see more of Neil Brown, Jr., as DJ Yella, Aldis Hodge, as MC Ren, and Marlon Yates, Jr., as The D.O.C.. As the film plays out such major contributors are relegated, for the most part, to supporting players and sidekicks.

So, to sum up: I really, honestly and truly, love Straight Outta Compton. Great movie, great story. Moving and funny and heartbreaking and tragic, it'll hit you in all the feels.