Director F. Gary Gray gets so much right in Straight Outta Compton that you wish he had a better script. And yet in the year of #OscarsSoWhite, the only thing the film was nominated for was its screenplay (which was written by white people). Such is the awards season, where often the weakest element of an important film is the only thing that wins, or – in this case – gets nominated.
Starting in Compton in 1986, the film puts the focus on the three stars of NWA: Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) – who is introduced with a drug deal that goes bad – Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son). Living in the ghetto, the latter two want to break out through their music, and so they get into the music business with Eazy-E’s drug-based financing. But when another performer falls through, it turns out that Eazy goes from producer to performer, and when his first single “Boyz N the Hood” is a success, it leads to the formation of NWA with Mc Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Eazy teaming up with producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Heller gets the group seen by record labels, which leads them to their first album on Priority records, and a tour. Because of their songs, specifically “Fuck tha Police,” the group engenders controversy, but it’s the machinations of Heller and Wright that cause splinters in the group, with Cube the first to leave because he wasn’t getting paid right. Such leads to rap battles between Cube and his former colleagues, but with Dre seeing the writing on the wall, he ends up partnering with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) to get out of his contract with Eazy.
For the first hour or so, the film charts the group’s electrifying rise to the top, and does so with humanity. As the group often clashed with law enforcement, both before and after they became famous, you can see how the film could have told a better story about that relationship, about how the group was constantly butting heads against the racist nature of the LAPD, and were proved right to fear and dislike the police by both the Rodney King incident (which gets a lot of focus in the film) and by the Rampart scandal. Unfortunately, the film plays like a Wikipedia page greatest hits collection of incidents, which means the film meanders when it covers Dr. Dre getting arrested for drunk driving (though doesn’t go into his history of beating woman). It also tries to put a positive spin on the passing of Eazy-E as it suggests the three were on the verge of reuniting the band right before Wright’s death.
As the film was produced by Eazy-E’s widow, Dre and Cube, the fact that the film is a hagiography is no surprise, but you can see how there is a great movie in the material, and for an hour or so, the music, the performers and the atmosphere (Gray knew this world intimately) get over the film’s weaker script elements, but as the film basically charts all the seemingly important parts of these people’s lives, it gets straight stupid, with Dr. Dre getting the title of The Chronic when Snoop Dogg (beautifully played by Lakeith Lee Stanfield, seriously, that kid is a star and should be everywhere shortly) passes him a chronic joint. Great bio-pics tell the untold story, show elements that you don’t know or at least show a full tale that is narratively satisfying. This gets by due to having some of the best music from the 20th century as its backbone.
Universal’s Blu-ray offers the film with a DVD and digital copy and presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio in both the theatrical (147 min.) and extended cut (167 min.) . The longer version is the lesser version, as the film is mostly propulsive for the first half, and the longer it takes, the more it slows down. The film also comes with a commentary by F. Gary Gray that covers a lot but either shows that filmmaking is “magic” or that he’s a terrible liar. The sequence where a banger is looking for his girlfriend Felicia? Gray suggests that Jackson Jr. improv’d the line “Bye Felicia” at the end. The scene where cops almost arrest NWA, which inspired Cube to write “Fuck tha Police?” Gray says he didn’t hire a black cop until the night before. Considering the song talks about how terrible it is to be arrested by a black cop who’s partnered with a white cop, it suggests Gray is either stupid but lucky, or someone trying to sell the magic of happy accidents. The rest of the supplements are frizzy and lacking.
There are six deleted scenes: “Into the Recording Studio” (1 min.), “Funeral” (1 min.), “Pasadena City Jail” (1 min.), “Nicole Visits Dre” (3 min.), “Reunited” (1 min.), and “Dre Gets a Call” (1 min.). Most of these run less than thirty seconds with the latter being a good example of the deleted material. It is literally Dre getting a phone call while shooting a video, with none of the information he got from the call being relayed in the deleted scene. It’s followed by “Deleted Song Performance” (1 min.), which offers a little bit more footage of the band performing.
“N.W.A.: The Origins” (4 min.) shows that DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Mc Ren were involved in the making of the movie, as they talk about how the band came together, while “Impact” (2 min.) talks about the group and how it changed the world/music scene. “Director’s Journey” (3 min.) shows how Gray reshot the LA riots in the real locations. “The Streets: Filming in Compton” (6 min.) points out how the film was shot where it was actually set, while “N.W.A Performs in Detroit” (5 min.) showcases that the band was heavily involved in the making of the movie, and “Becoming N.W.A.” (9 min.) highlights the cast, for most of whom this is a breakthrough shot at stardom. For the Ice Cube/Dr. Dre interview, the two were in the same room, but the staging and photography of it is such that it takes a moment to realize they were recorded together, whether that’s ego getting in the way of production, or if it’s horrible blocking it’s hard to say.