I’m somewhat notorious among my social circles for not liking biopics or “based on true events” films. I’m not sure why they typically don’t click with me, but recent fare like Selma and The Danish Girl (to name a few) simply haven’t resonated despite being critical darlings.
Fortunately, Straight Outta Compton is an exception to this trend: a compelling and maturely filmed historical drama about the rise of N.W.A. and the political context fueling the west coast hip-hop scene.
The film’s strongest asset is the music, something it leverages to tremendous (while restrained) impact. The performance sequences are electrifying, some of the best concert footage in a film since the pop masterpiece Purple Rain. Like any good musical (historical or otherwise), the songs are heightened by their context within the story: Eazy-E going against his partner Lorenzo’s wishes and performing more hardcore hip-hop, their breakthrough tour performance, and most memorably, N.W.A. defying police pressure.
These musical sequences are deliberate and thoughtful, exemplary of the overall approach director F. Gary Gray takes with this film. We aren’t pummeled with shot/reverse/shot sequences of dialogue, but mostly still, wider shots of N.W.A. in a recording studio, multiple characters interacting within the frame. We are trusted to see the action unfold before us, without close-ups or sweeping long takes driving the camerawork and numbing us to their impact.
And when they do happen, they’re to memorable effect. In one sequence, we witness a long take through a hotel suite: one room relatively calm and quiet, before passing into the adjoining room spinning gracefully around partakers in drugs and sexual activity. It’s outrageous and almost laughable, but still beautifully shot.
That’s the real power of Straight Outta Compton. It takes people and places who, frankly, aren’t well-represented in cinema, and elevates the narrative through mature technical craft and thoughtful pacing. The cast and crew take this larger-than-life story seriously, so we do too. It’s great to see this kind of story be told with the care and integrity that it deserves.