‘Compton’ an unflinching tribute to hip-hop pioneers
By Bob Bloom
Musicians always have been storytellers. They hold a mirror to social injustices or highlight the hypocrisy or complacency of the times in which they create and perform.
And society — usually a white and older citizenship — has raised howls of protest, claiming that these new sounds will lead to the downfall of Western civilization or entice young people away from so-called traditional values.
Thus it was in the 1930s with Woody Guthrie-led protest songs, the 1950s with the coming of Elvis, the 1960s with the Beatles-led British invasion and the mid-1980s with the arrival of hip-hop.
This latter music was especially frightening to many people for two reasons: It was dominantly urban and black, and it expressed an anger and frustration rarely heard on records or over the airwaves.
One of the forerunners of this movement on the West Coast was N.W.A., the Compton, Calif., group that included Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren.
Their gangsta rap music expressed their rage over the ill treatment of black people by police, and the prevalence of drugs, crime and poverty in their neighborhoods.
This is the background of F. Gary Gray’s dynamic and explosive “Straight Outta Compton.”
The movie does more than chronicle the rise and fall of N.W.A. It turns a light onto the social upheaval of the times, as well as the shady and brutal tactics that were widespread in the music industry during those turbulent years.
The film follows the five young men as they use their music and brutally honest lyrics to express their antagonism about the dangerous and depressing environment around them.
The quintet of artists are portrayed by fresh faces such as O’Shea Jackson Jr. as O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (yes, Cube’s son plays his father), Jason Mitchell as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Corey Hawkins as Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, Neil Brown Jr. as Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Aldis Hodge as Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson.
The re-creations of the group’s concert sequences are fantastic, bringing a furious urgency to their performances.
But the movie’s political and sociological subtext is telling, as the young men are constantly harassed and judged by local and federal law enforcement and other establishment and mainstream entities because of their race, dress and provocative lyrics.
Yet, N.W.A. refuses to soften either its words or its hardline stance, believing that, as Americans and performers, it is their First Amendment right to speak their piece — no matter how profane or outrageous “polite” society considers it.
The movie does not shy away from the machinations that eventually caused N.W.A. to disband. That is especially true in the portrayal of their manager, Jerry Heller, a smooth-talking record executive, portrayed by Paul Giamatti.
He is a charmer, who continually covers his tracks while bilking his clients out of hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars.
“Compton” also touches upon the intrigues between record labels as they continue to filch artists by legal or illegal means. Death Row Records executive and producer Suge Knight comes off particularly repellent.
Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are the film’s main focus, and the trio portraying them offers multifaceted and dedicated performances.
The trappings of success and disputes over money are at the root of their eventual split. Yet, each in his own way, remains true to his music and roots.
Gray, at times, uses a documentary-style of filmmaking to advance the story, especially when showing the fear and outrage provoked by N.W.A.’s music.
“Straight Outta Compton” is a intense and harsh movie. It also is an inspirational one that keenly shows how talent and artistry can overcome manmade economic and societal obstacles.
Even at nearly 2½ hours, “Straight Outta Compton” evokes a driving and constant beat that will keep you invested not just in the music, but — especially — in the quintet of artists who rode it into a nation’s consciousness.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
4 stars out of 4
(R), violence, language, nudity, sexual content, drug use