The Production: 2.5/5
Straight Outta Compton really wants to be an epic – the story of the beginning of a band like The Beatles, only set in the harder world of 1980s Compton and spotlighting the members of seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A.. And for the first hour, it provides some compelling moments, mostly driven by the clear staging and straight-ahead direction of F. Gary Gray. It’s just that after that point, there simply isn’t enough story to sustain a movie of nearly 2 ½ hours or in the case of the director’s cut, nearly 3 hours. The plot is simple – in the mid-1980s, several Compton locals come together to form N.W.A., including budding dj Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – the actual son of the real Ice Cube). They encounter the usual difficulties, including a hostile club owner, racist police, and the typical exploiting Jewish manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). The group releases records and becomes popular and successful, but falls apart due to the duplicity of Heller and Eazy-E. There are other details, including some sidetracks about Dr. Dre’s work with Suge Knight, and the inevitable turn toward tragedy in the third act. And by about an hour into the movie, it’s clear that the storytelling is staying at a fairly basic level. There frankly is no attempt to reach below the surface – if an easy answer presents itself, the movie takes it. In addition, it’s fairly obvious that the narrative is coming from the perspectives of Dre and Cube, who both come across as virtuous and aggrieved at the expected times during the movie. At the same time, both Eazy-E and Heller come across as villains for the most part. Granted, this should be expected, since Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are producers of this film – but it leaves the viewer with a one-sided narrative of a very shallow story.
SPOILERS: N.W.A. are regarded as the rap group that really established the West Coast rap language, and there’s certainly credit to be given to them for their aggressive use of samples and for their openly profane depiction of the street life, both for real gangbangers and wannabes. The Straight Outta Compton record is regarded as one of the most influential rap albums ever produced, and one of the most influential rock albums of all time. Their anti-cop rap from Ice Cube, “F*** tha Police”, is notable for its anger at the police as an institution, but also for its frighteningly casual advocacy for attacks on police. We should also keep in mind that the breakout stars of this group, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, have both gone on to extremely successful careers, propelled from the success of N.W.A.’s original work from the 1980s. So there’s an interesting story to be told here – if one wanted to get into the real content of the rap lyrics and the contradictory pressures surrounding all the members of the group. For much of the first hour of the movie, Straight Outta Compton does try to examine the basics of what created this band. We meet Eazy-E in a drug buy that goes south when the police arrive with a battering ram vehicle and destroy the house. We meet Dre in a haze of the music he will later use for his samples, and we’re given a good introduction to him as a person and a dj. We meet Cube in a fairly shocking scene where a school bus is invaded by gangbangers after the students are dumb enough to taunt the gangstas’ car. There’s a scrappiness to the early scenes that works well – particularly when the group finally starts to record their album and Dre must teach Eazy-E how to rap. I’ll also note that the performers in the movie are all quite good, particularly Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.. Watching Jackson play his father at his age is a bit eerie at times – he definitely embodies the feeling of the real Ice Cube, beyond having many of the same facial features.
MORE SPOILERS: The problems here are multi-fold. First, there just isn’t very much story here – it’s a fairly typical “Behind the Music” depiction of the birth of a band and then the inevitable collapse. More than that, the movie repeatedly avoids any complexity if it can avoid it. Rather than giving us a full look at these men and how their band made a difference, the movie keeps to the surface. Yes, we eventually see the Los Angeles riots that broke out when the Rodney King verdict was announced in spring 1992 – but we frankly don’t understand any more context than that every scene with police will involve the main characters being harassed and racially profiled. It’s a given that the cops here are racist – when they break up a fight behind a club, we’re meant to think they’re simply butting into something that isn’t their business. When the cops rough up the band outside their recording studio, it’s an obviously malicious tactic. When the band is threatened by Detroit police and told not to play Cube’s anti-cop anthem, it’s not hard to figure out what will happen next. But this approach ignores WHY the police were swarming the hip hop clubs, and why they were taking the aggressive approach that they did. It’s too easy to just blame Darryl Gates and assume that the cops were keeping people down. And it leaves out all the drive-by shootings, all the violence, all the botched drug deals that usually ended in more violence, all the gang activity. For this movie, Compton’s 1980s and 90s history feels more like a Cliff’s Notes summation than a real examination. Since we don’t have any reference to understand that, the motivations and pressures behind the band come across as two dimensional.
SPOILERS CONTINUE: There’s a further problem – the oversimplification of the band’s issues. Since this movie has been produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, it’s understandable that it presents them in a sympathetic light. But the fact is, the movie really sets them up as the heroes of the story, while denigrating Heller and Eazy-E. It ignores any places where Cube and Dre could have contributed to the problems the band was having, and any issues they were having of their own. If we were to just rely on this movie, we’d have to believe that all the problems inside the band were coming from Eazy-E and the manager, and the other guys were choirmen. And that’s simply not true of any band. Sadly, it means that we’re only seeing part of the story, which again takes us back to the problem of the movie being too long to have so little content. The movie finds another easy villain in Suge Knight, who is presented as an out-and-out criminal bully. And again, we have to ask if Knight was responsible for all the problems attributed to him, all by himself. This is not to denigrate anyone, but to note that the version of the story presented here is not only too simple, but unnecessarily watered down.
The Blu-ray of Straight Outta Compton has been available to home theater viewers since January 19th (and by all accounts has been selling quite well). The Blu-ray includes the Director’s Cut, which has 20 minutes more footage than the Theatrical Release version – but all that really does is pad the movie into the longer running time. The packaging includes Blu-ray and SD DVD editions of the movie, with the longer cut only available on the Blu-ray. The SD DVD includes most of the brief featurettes, as well as the Theatrical Version iteration of F. Gary Gray’s commentary. Instructions for downloading a digital copy of each movie are included on an insert in the packaging.
3D Rating: NA
Straight Outta Compton is presented in a 1080p AVC transfer (avg 25 mbps). The transfer looks great, including a variety of locations, costumes and skin tones, all looking accurate. One of the places where the transfer really works is in the depictions of the group’s club and arena performances. These usually involve dark rooms with large crowds, smoke and high-tech lighting – and all of those elements pop in the right way here.
Straight Outta Compton is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (avg 3.5 mbps, going up to 4.6 mbps in the big scenes), along with English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes and an English DVS 2.0 mix. Given that the music tends to drive this movie, it’s appropriate that the sound mix is impeccable. There’s a fair amount of atmospheric effects and directionality, and the subwoofer is as busy as one might expect, given the heavy bass lines of much of the music.
Special Features: 3/5
Straight Outta Compton comes with a decent amount of bonus material, in that the Blu-ray has a longer cut of the movie, as well as a director’s commentary that can work for either version. Past that, there’s really just about 30 minutes of featurettes and deleted material. Not all of the material from the Blu-ray is on the SD DVD.
Feature Commentary with Director/Producer F. Gary Gray (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND ON DVD) – F. Gary Gray provides a scene-specific commentary, which can work for either version of the movie. He spends a fair amount of time talking about the real people in the band, as well as about the various period details of his staging. So the commentary is actually helpful for those viewers who aren’t as familiar with N.W.A. or with the world of 1980s Compton.
Deleted Scenes (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) (5:41 Total, 6 Scenes, 1080p AVC) – Six deleted scenes are presented here, although most of them are simply a few moments’ extension of what is already in the movie.
Deleted Song Performance (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) (1:28, 1080p) This is just the opening rap introductions for the Detroit concert seen in the movie.
N.W.A. The Origins (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) (3:49, 1080p) – This very short featurette is the first of a series of short pieces that together add up to less than 30 minutes. It’s frankly a pointless exercise to have divided the materials up like this – they could have combined everything into a single piece and had something a little more substantial, without even going over the 30 minute line. Nevertheless, this is a quick introduction to the movie, as led by producers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
Impact (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) (1:35, 1080p) – This even shorter featurette gets into a brief discussion of N.W.A.’s appeal, but can’t do much more than that, given a running time of 90 seconds.
Director’s Journey (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) (3:22, 1080p) – This piece focuses a little more on director F. Gary Gray’s work to recreate the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Again, the very short duration does not allow for much depth about anything.
The Streets: Filming in Compton (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) (6:03, 1080p) – This featurette is a little longer, and actually allows for a bit more detail about how the film company worked on location in Compton. There’s a bit of on-set video of the company shooting an early scene where the Steadicam must cross a neighborhood street where bikers are tooling through and popping wheelies along the way. More time is given to the great opening sequence where the notorious battering ram vehicle is put to work – in this case with the help of a former police officer who used to drive one of those things for real back in the 80s and 90s.
N.W.A. Performs in Detroit (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) (4:54, 1080p) – This short featurette focuses on the company’s staging of N.W.A.’s infamous Detroit concert, where they were explicitly told NOT to play “F*** Tha Police”, did it anyway and instigated a near-riot. There’s a great moment in the on-set footage here, in that the company was using over 2500 background artists to make up the crowd and needed to keep them excited after many hours of filming. So producer Ice Cube went onstage and performed an impromptu set for the crowd, alongside his son – which means that the crowd got a double dose of Ice Cube in one sitting.
Becoming N.W.A. (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) (8:30, 1080p) – This is another slightly longer featurette, this time focusing on the casting of the movie. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. gets a bit of attention here, given that he is said to have spent two years earning the part of his father. There’s a couple of other fun bits, with the young actors playing various parts being paired off with the real guys. Of course, the real Jerry Heller is nowhere to be seen…
DVD Edition – The SD DVD is included in the packaging. It contains the Theatrical version of the movie in anamorphic widescreen and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (@ 448kbps), along with the shorter version of the Director’s Commentary and several of the short featurettes. The DVD does not include any of the deleted scenes or the “Becoming N.W.A.” featurette.
Digital and Ultraviolet Copies – Instructions for obtaining digital and Ultraviolet copies of the 2D edition of the movie are available on an insert in the packaging.
The film and special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
Straight Outta Compton works for much of its first hour, but simply can’t sustain itself for even the 2 ½ hours of the Theatrical version, let alone the longer Director’s Cut on the Blu-ray. The staging is fairly clear and the young cast is quite good, but the story here is too limited to the surface to allow much of an examination of N.W.A. or the guys who formed it. The Blu-ray offers solid picture and sound, and a decent amount of bonus features – albeit with a number of very short featurettes that should have been combined. Given the popularity of the band and the movie, it’s a no-brainer that this one will sell whether I recommend it or not. I just wish that the movie itself had been a stronger effort.