While they sold tons of records and the content of their songs grabbed a lot of headlines, there was never enough appreciation for the look of N.W.A. Their late-’80s ensemble of black sweatshirts and Los Angeles sportsgear doesn’t get as much traction as Beatle boots but it is just as iconic. Certainly the group worked because it was comprised of astonishingly talented individuals, but they also looked the part. F. Gary Gray’s new film, which tackles the meteoric rise and enduring impact of N.W.A., also looks the part. That goes a long way in selling this story. Not all the way, but pretty close.
N.W.A. began in 1986 with drug-dealing impresario Eazy-E, the two musical prodigies Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and good friends DJ Yella and MC Ren. The film charts the group’s formation, monumental success, and abrupt dissolution. It all comes on rapidly but that’s because it did so in real life. Ice Cube left the group the year after their masterpiece “Straight Outta Compton” was released. The film bypasses some seminal material in its effort to keep this at the two-and-a-half hour mark. For example, no mention is made of Dr. Dre’s Eazy-E bashing in the promotional material for his multi-platinum solo debut “The Chronic”. Admittedly this may have been glossed over since we are treated earlier to an extended section of Ice Cube’s solo N.W.A. diss, which is far funnier.
The performances for the most part are dependably solid. I’m pretty sure O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is not Ice Cube’s son but the first of a legion of clones. The weakest link comes somewhat surprisingly from Paul Giamatti, the biggest name actor in the film. Just a couple months ago screens oozed with Giamatti’s portrayal of the poisonous Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson’s caretaker, bilker, and warden in Love & Mercy. In Compton, Giamatti plays the exact same role — with admittedly a little more nuance — as Jerry Heller, the sleazy middleman that promises to guide the group from out of the ghetto and into record company offices. Giamatti used to have range and pick roles with some semblance of depth. Now I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sign on as Col. Tom Parker or Albert Grossman next. It’s predictable work and totally boring.
On the other hand, F. Gary Gray is no hack behind the camera and it is apparent that he knows this subject matter and this era as well as anyone. Gray has a real sense for staging and wrings some genuine excitement and anger out of specific moments, even when the script occasionally fails him. A scene of law enforcement intimidation which immediately precedes the writing of “Fuck Tha Police” is heavy-handed and verbally clunky, but a later scene of the same song’s contentious performance in Detroit is harrowing and exhilarating.
As is often the case in biopics, the earliest scenes are the best. There is electricity to the group’s genesis and their initial success. It should come as no surprise that a film from the director of the immortal Friday is also very funny. The interplay within the group dynamic leads to a lot of genuine comedy. Later on, however, the humor hits some sour notes. A carefully constructed scene of hotel room debauchery, replete with a number of characters weaving around a sly tracking shot, ends with a topless woman being thrown out into a hotel lobby with a dismissive shove.
When it comes to women, Straight Outta Compton comes up short on all counts. While the film would like the audience to think that it’s going to give us the warts-and-all version of the group’s story, it certainly avoids some of the more distressing topics. Sure we get to hear the group’s misogynistic lyrics but we don’t see evidence of say, Dr. Dre’s very real history of violence towards women. Near the end of the film, Dre walks away from the music empire that was Death Row Records after seeing one too many scenes of predatory intimidation. He tells the thuggish Suge Knight that his partner can keep all the money because there’s no price for a clean conscience. How about the women you hurt, Dre?
Performances by females very rarely rise up beyond set dressing in the film. And what dressing they have is usually just a thong. A pair of thankless scenes are written for Dr. Dre’s mother, who early on yells at him to get a job, then reappears once more in a scene of condolence. After that, she’s gone. The mother to Dre’s first child isn’t even glimpsed until she pulls up in a car with baby in tow to say that she’s leaving him. It reads as if there is no need to establish a relationship since she’s not integral to his future.
The closing credits consist of a montage showing all of the achievements Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were responsible for after Eazy-E’s death. As producers, Cube seems content to just let clips of him acting and performing speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Dre has clips of Snoop Dogg and Eminem talking about what an inspiration he is. It all ends with Apple’s recent acquisition of Dre’s company Beats Electronics. At one point in the film a character tells us that it’s not about the money, it’s all about the music, but the film’s final taste is just more capitalistic hagiography.
(Straight Outta Compton opens wide on 8/14)