Review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ plays it too straight

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

When N.W.A.’s album “Straight Outta Compton” was released in 1988, it hit like a shotgun blast to the chest, awakening an entire West Coast rap scene and smacking listeners everywhere with the violent realities of Los Angeles street life.

“Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic that tells the story of the “World’s Most Dangerous Group,” doesn’t have nearly the same effect. Nor could it: Director F. Gary Gray has too big a story to tell, enough for a TV miniseries (or a season’s worth of “Behind the Music” episodes), and you can see him straining to cram everything in even as the film stretches to the two-and-a-half hour mark.

This is a story of social upheaval, beating the odds, record business politics, fame and fortune, interpersonal drama and Suge Knight. Lots to cover. And the film takes a mostly straightforward approach, cataloging the highs and lows of Dr. Dre, Eazy E and Ice Cube (and, to a far lesser extent, MC Ren and DJ Yella).

Sometimes “Compton” roars to life, such as when Cube (played by Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) is seen recording his seering diss track “No Vaseline,” which is intercut with the rest of the group hearing and reacting to the song for the first time. The scene’s dramatic license and shifts in time stand out in a film that too often plays for simple recreations of events we already know to be true.

The approach is safe for a group that was anything but. Perhaps the involvement of Dre and Cube, producers on the film, led to the somewhat stodgy storytelling, which aims for completeism but glosses over large chunks of the group members’ later years (and some of their more unflattering controversies). Meanwhile, other questions go unanswered, such as the motivations of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who is warm toward Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) even while ripping him and the other group members blind.

The cast is a mixed bag. Jackson’s Cube and Mitchell’s Eazy are the best of the bunch, the former nailing his father’s attitude and snarl and Mitchell capturing Eazy’s playful menace. Corey Hawkins’ Dr. Dre isn’t as effective; Hawkins can’t conjure the deep wells of soul behind Dre’s eyes or the business acumen that continues to make him one of hip-hop’s all-time most important figures.

The screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff starts off in the streets, with a thrilling sequence where Eazy makes a daring escape from a stash house during a police raid. Soon he’s in a recording studio, and the scene where he finds his voice while laying down vocals for “Boyz-n-the-Hood” captures the spontaneous moments of creative inspiration that sometimes lead to immortal music moments.

The film could use a few more of those instances, and too often settles for bits that play like Wikipedia entries from N.W.A.’s career (including appearances by actors playing Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur).

Meanwhile the concert scenes, including a pivotal moment at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, feel overly staged, like concert scenes in movies too often do. And the ending feels arbitrary, spotlighting a pivotal moment in Dre’s career but not in the story of the group.

“Straight Outta Compton” is ambitious but winds up taking on too much. Gray was entrusted with condensing down and presenting the breadth of N.W.A.’s influence and power, but N.W.A.’s truth is more powerful than “Straight Outta Compton’s” fiction.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

Straight Outta Compton

GRADE: C+

Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use

Running time: 150 minutes