O’Shea Jackson Jr.
reviewed by Tom-Tom
Living in Japan, quintessentially American films or TV shows detailing the very unique lives of the various peoples of the United States are a rare sight. Therefore, I missed “Straight Outta Compton” when it was released in the United States only knowing of its existence through an excellently written review by Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com. I had grown up hearing most of contemporary American music via the blaring radios of nearby cars. My mother played only Top 40 hits of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s, my brother was into hard rock and some alternative, and my sister and I were deep into mid-late Romantic Era composers and some Baroque ones. The early 90’s brought us Vanilla Ice and New Kids on the Block which were wildly popular until over-saturation and scandal scattered their short lived fame among the wind. In the background of my middle school and high school years I heard names like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. Ice Cube and LL Cool J were known to me more for their film presence than for their musical one.
I remember, though, spending an entire afternoon while waiting for one of the umpteenth repairs on my mother’s old Chevy Astro Van of writing out a rap in my little college ruled notebook. The freedom of expression combined with a stylish rhythm was very appealing. I showed it to my pal at school who shook his head ruefully and said, “I don’t get it.” So much for my career as a rapper. I guess I’ll stick to composing concerti and symphonies, and reviews, eventually.
My image of rap in the mid to late 90’s (and rock too, via my brother’s loud radio) was loud and in your face, much different from the Beethoven String Quartets and Mendelssohn String Symphonies I was enjoying at the time. The message of drug dealers and cop abuse felt like reports from a foreign country. I couldn’t relate with it nor with the insatiable anger by rock bands with their endless guitar solos and refraining the chorus. From a composers point of view, the intricatly rhythmic albeit seemingly impromptu lines machine gunning out of the mouths of many a rapper indicated a higher level of technical skill than the pick three chords and scream style of the rock I heard via my brother’s radio.
So it is here in the film Straight Outta Compton where young gentlemen with completely different situations save for being African Americans in California (save for the D.O.C. from Texas) assemble. Usually the film would introduce the different characters in cliches such as the talent, the face, the money, the muscle etc. But in this case, EVERYONE is the talent from Doctor Dre’s masterful and illimitable tracks, to Ice Cube’s brilliant and succinct lines to Eazy E’s eye for management and solid rap delivery (after a comically rough start). DJ Yella is a sort of mix of the three leaning more towards the composing and rapping area, and MC Ren too a mix but leaning more towards lyrics and their sound delivery.
Their lifestyles are revealed rather early with member of the Bloods Gang boarding Ice Cube’s school bus on the way home and threatening kids at gunpoint and being harassed by police while walking across the street from Dre’s Auntie’s house. Dre and DJ Yella have steady jobs at Alonzo’s Club playing R&B with Dre slipping in his own favorite or original tracks when the owner isn’t looking. This is Ice Cube’s chance to debut his “reality rap” which is less pop and about dancing or romance but about the day to day life of young people like himself. The music hits a nerve and is very well received and Dre meets Eric Wright AKA Eazy E who is getting out of the drug dealing racket and intent on investing his money on a sure thing.
Soon enough, Eazy E is putting his money where his mouth is (or vice versa) and rapping for the first time in his life. This session about the authenticity of rap line delivery is a master class as delivered by Doctor Dre to Eazy. It reminded me of the way Edward Norton’s character schooled Michael Keaton’s in Birdman but without the venom. Ice Cube’s lyrics, Doctor Dre’s tracks and production, newcomer Eazy E’s high tenor rapping. It was a dream come true. N.W.A. ‘s song Boyz ‘n the Hood is born and is a great hit drawing the attention of future manager Jerry Heller. He approaches Eazy E and offers to open doors and to protect the young men. He gets them a concert at Skateland and the crowd goes wild. They are immediately offered to join Priority Records and their creative furor takes off. Straight Outta Compton and F*** tha [sic] Police are among the more memorable title the latter piece getting them in trouble by those advocating censure ship and by Detroit Police.
Jerry Heller, although an obvious villain is never a mere two dimensional character. He is played with skill by the formidable Paul Giamatti who, along with the rest of the cast have been picked for their acting talent as well as their uncanny resemblance to those who they portray. He gets the police off their back at one point defending them as artists and decrying their treatment based on skin color alone. He also is constantly smoothing over various press related debacles the group creates as well as pregnant groupies with a world weariness and a crafty snakiness having Eazy E sign his life away counting on the singer’s trust and deigning to most of the crew without contracts which enrages Ice Cube to go his own way.
The various antics of the group, their affairs, fits of anger, betrayals, and various proclivities are rather frankly depicted with nary a sweetening of the cold reality save by omission. Along the way, there are deaths in the family, the wounds around which all draw in as brothers and even as the group is splintered, they start drawing inexorably back to together with cameos from Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dog. The joy of collaborating with such talent mixed with the excesses of success are never boring or rushed. Straight Outta Compton is a well paced, beautifully shot, well acted, wonderfully performed piece of mandatory music history told with a master’s touch and a poet’s grace. The ending packs such a powerful emotional punch that even foresight cannot cease the tears. Listen to the end of the credits with Doctor Dre’s beautifully nostalgic Just Talking to My Diary. It is the perfect catharsis after a quicker than seems possible 2 and a half hours. How F. Gary Gray wasn’t nominated for Best Director or the film itself for a Best Picture Academy Award is a crime against film.