‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is a Boilerplate Music Biopic — But Here’s Why It Works

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton leans heavily on many of the tired crutches and worn-out tics of the musical genius biopic. It attempts to stuff the particulars of an influential artist (in this case, at least three of them) into a two-hours-and-change package, marching chronologically from rags to riches to trouble like a million biopics before it have; the dramatic constraints of that info dump requires dialogue that’s thuddingly expositional and frequently subtext-free; the supporting characters, with a couple of exceptions, would be charitably deemed one-dimensional. And yet, in spite of its many formal and structural flaws, Straight Outta Compton works, because it does something more important and more interesting: it captures a moment, and positions its music at the center of that moment.

Compton begins the story of N.W.A. in 1986, with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) slinging drugs, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. — Cube’s son) filling notebooks with rhymes, and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) deejaying in clubs for chump change. (MC Ren and DJ Yella, played by Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr., are mostly relegated to the background, though Brown runs off with a few well-timed laugh lines.) The opening scenes unfold in maddeningly boilerplate fashion; when Dre, pulled from his headphone-assisted daydreams atop a pile of carefully arranged LP covers, is chewed out by his mother with such well-worn clichés as, “I work my ass off and I refuse to let you throw it all away,” you can set your watch to her stern slap across his face.

Corey Hawkins in "Straight Outta Compton"

The picture comes to life when such scene setting is put aside to dramatize the simple pleasures of youthful creativity: snapshots of the crew hanging out, cracking jokes, and making music. There’s a real energy and freedom in those early performances and recording sessions, as these hungry kids find a new style and a new sound, and not always smoothly (the recording of “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” which Eazy has to be coerced into taking over, is a highlight).

Eventually, they manage to get that sound onto wax — and in front of important people in the business, thanks in part to the dealings of controversial manager Jerry Heller, realized with complexity and intelligence by Paul Giamatti. “I can make you legit,” he assures Eazy, and indeed he does, while taking what seems an increasingly disproportionate piece of the pie for himself. Or does he? Giamatti’s a smart enough actor never to show too much of his hand; when he wrangles over money with Cube, he’s keenly attuned to the soft art of quiet intimidation, but when he assures Eazy, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t you dare fuckin’ tell me I haven’t taken care of you,” it’s hard not to believe him. (It seems safe to assume the flashes of humanity granted to Heller probably wouldn’t have appeared in a film produced by a pre-Beats Dre, or for that matter, a pre-CubeVision Ice Cube.)

There’s not a helluva lot of consistency to Straight Outta Compton; director Gray careens uneasily from evocative, heartfelt drama to wince-inducing biographical place-markers (actual line of dialogue by Cube’s wife: “Hey baby, how’s Friday comin’?”), sometimes within the same scene. It isn’t always easy to separate the characters’ misogyny from the film’s, particularly when it comes to placating the legacy of the story’s survivors (the post-Compton beef between Cube and the remaining members of the group is painstakingly detailed, which makes the absence of Dre’s assault on hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes all the more striking). The portrayal of Eazy-E’s illness is particularly clumsy, dramatized by several strategically placed coughing fits. And by the time Dre is joined in the studio by his new protégé, a lanky rapper from Long Beach, it feels like we’ve degenerated into pure fan service (I guess we’re all supposed to punch each other and grin, “That’s Snoop!”).

O'Shea Jackson Jr. in "Straight Outta Compton"

But for all of those reservations, it’s impossible to understate the skill with which Gray (and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) capture the sheer brute force of N.W.A.’s music, as crafted in the studio and as performed, often to the chagrin of and even under explicit threat from federal and local law enforcement, on stage. And that’s what drew them not only to brothers and sisters in the hood, but outcasts in the suburbs (hi). It wasn’t just that they were talented, or innovative, or exciting — they were fucking dangerous, telling stories out of school and speaking truth to power, real power, in the bluntest, most provocative language imaginable.

In several brutally effective scenes, Gray shows his protagonists being harassed by Los Angeles’ finest, and they’re scenes of frightening, almost unbearable tension and totally impotent rage. Those scenes still pack a wallop, obviously; they don’t feel like period details, but snapshots from the war still being waged, a war in which N.W.A. reported from the foxholes. In one of Straight Outta Compton’s best scenes, the entire crew is roughed up the LAPD, right outside the doors of the studio where they’re recording their debut album. Their manager hustles the shaken musicians back inside; a few minutes later, Cube wanders into the studio with a sheet of paper in hand, and tells Dre, “I got somethin’ for this beat.” Does he ever.

Straight Outta Compton is out Friday.