Name me another music biopic that opens with a battering ram. “Straight Outta Compton’s” incredible sense of location is so strongly of the streets and of the Compton neighborhood. It knows how crazy things can get, to the point where it needs to begin with the cops bringing an army to nail some black kids doing drugs. Director F. Gary Gray places the film not in the canon of other music biopics but in the league of a racially charged masterpiece like “Boyz n the Hood” or “Friday,” which Gray also directed starring N.W.A’s Ice Cube.
The music of N.W.A. and specifically the album “Straight Outta Compton” is so charged with personality and local identity that it would be a mistake if the movie didn’t also aim for that level of knowledge about the community in which it was brought up. These kids starting out making music show some real effort in a tough upbringing, and their attitude is to rap about that reality. “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds,” the film says, and we can see how immediately crazy things can get. The words matter more than the beats, and the movie doesn’t over intellectualize their music to the point of fawning over its brilliance. It just scares the shit out of people, leaving room for some truly insane rock star moments, like a massive hotel orgy culminating in N.W.A. pulling out their massive glocks at some intruders like it was nothing.
But on a biopic level, “Straight Outta Compton” is rare in how it manages an effective, yet comprehensive story. The film starts with N.W.A. cutting their first single and goes until Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) had all gone their separate solo routes. With the Director’s Cut at nearly 3 hours, it takes its time fleshing out the story of all three characters individually, rather than trying to stuff subplots into the story of one. I imagine it’s how a Beatles biopic would have to be approached were anyone to ever take it on.
“Straight Outta Compton” even plays the biopic game of showy musical performances and celebrity cameos, but embedded within each of these more superfluous set pieces and attractions is a real sense of danger. The cops could be harassing the band or Suge Knight could be threatening to shoot a crewmember in the next room. Paul Giamatti is also officially the go-to guy as a sleazy, manipulative tour manager, having now played the part here, in “Rock of Ages” and “Love & Mercy.”
Music biopics are often concerned with history and personal legacy, but Gray makes “Straight Outta Compton” modern and urgent in its delivery of powerful melodrama, vital lyrics and hyper-relevant themes. This is a Movie With Attitude.
3 ½ stars