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Feature


In the late 1980s, five young cultural rebels – armed only with their lyrics, swagger, bravado and raw talent – stood up to the authorities that meant to keep them down and formed the world's most dangerous group, N.W.A. And, as they spoke the truth that no one had before and exposed life in the hood, their voice ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today. (From Universal’s official synopsis)

 Straight Outta Compton
Parents during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s had a crisis on their hands and that crisis was called (looks left, looks right) gangsta rap. What was once a niche part of young black culture became a multi-million dollar industry and it scared the hell out of mostly white, mostly middle to upper middle class mothers. I have strong personal memories of an issue of Newsweek magazine, which notified worried parents of the content of popular hip-hop albums, including a rating system that my mother consulted every time I asked if I could buy an album. But, these days, Ice Cube makes popular family films, Dr. Dre founded a company that makes overpriced headphones, Easy-E is dead, and the rest of N.W.A. is languishing in obscurity (some of them are now so obscure that they don’t even appear in this movie…). Gangsta rap is so mainstream that the politicians and pundits who rail against it are immediately marked as out of touch and old. There is an entire generation of people that only know the vaguest pieces of the N.W.A. story and F. Gary Gray, the workaday, gritty action director behind Friday (the movie that introduced Ice Cube: The Mainstream Actor to America), seems like the guy to re-tell this story.

Straight Outta Compton is very good info-tainment that succeeds on its momentum and structure, rather than its drama or characters. There are affecting moments and some great performances (really, really good), but those of us that already know this story will be more impressed by its technical architecture than how accurate the portrayals are. This includes the standard storytelling as well as the way the cultural landscape of the era is represented in the peripherals of the story. For his part, Gray counteracts Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s systematic and predictable screenplay by shooting almost the entire movie like a behind-the-scenes documentary. The camera roams around, trailing characters and avoiding seemingly inescapable obstacles, like people and set pieces, in a desperate bid to capture the action. This choice can be a little annoying (and even a little nauseating, considering the constant camera shake), but lends an intimacy and verisimilitude to the proceedings. Above all, it makes Straight Outta Compton feel dangerous – as a movie about N.W.A. should be – despite the narrative material feeling safe.

 Straight Outta Compton
Technical achievements aside, the film’s biggest problems are still the same ones that curse just about every musical bio-pic or biopics in general. These movies often boil down to a series of touchstone moments and expositional speeches that end up de-humanizing the subject matter and create a rather boring world where important and amazing, dramatic things are all that happen in a person’s life. Every ten minutes, there is a revelation, a tragedy, or a chance for a monologue. Gray and the screenwriters take this conventional, episodic route and try to cram more than a decade of content into a manageable feature run-time. Considering that they’re basically making Ray or Walk the Line with three times the number of lead protagonists (Yella and Ren are definitely supporting players), Gray, Herman, and Berloff have accomplished a Herculean logistical task. The fact that Straight Outta Compton is entertaining and coherent is a resounding victory, given the workload they saddled themselves with. They had control at some point, but got greedy and overloaded their film. Easy’s death is a logical end point for a “life story,” I suppose, but there are a lot of side stories that seem to have been included only for their pop culture significance.

The puddle-skipping, choppy plotline also makes it easy to skip important facts that don’t support the movie’s central thesis: the members of N.W.A. were complicated geniuses and ultimately good people. Straight Outta Compton has a lot to say about race in pop culture and is a shockingly relevant story (the police brutality and cultural divides are only exaggerated in terms of dialogue, not actions), despite taking place decades ago, but it is also, ultimately, a vanity project. I mean, all biopics are a vanity project on some level with filmmakers telling a legendary, Cliff’s Notes version of a complicated life, but, when the subjects are still alive and involved in the production, one has to be suspicious of what isn’t mentioned. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors,” and in this case, the victors have used this high profile movie to mitigate the impact of their misogynistic and homophobic attitudes/lyrical content (don’t worry, it’s still a little bit misogynistic and homophobic), erase Dre’s history of assault, and ignore the contributions of Arabian Prince (aka: Kim Nazel), the sixth original member of the group (he appears in one scene, but isn’t named). If you stop and really think about the story as the film presents it, Cube and Dre do nothing ‘bad’ that isn’t framed as victorious rebellion or the result of Jerry Heller or Suge Knight taking advantage of them. The sanitation is really disappointing. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised though – how can you trust the movie when the literal Ice Cube Jr. is playing his own dad?

 Straight Outta Compton

Video


Straight Outta Compton was shot using Red Epic Dragon digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. As mentioned in the feature section, Gray and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who made a very similar-looking Black Swan for Darren Aronofsky, only in 16mm) shot the film in a hectic, cinéma vérité style that purposefully obscures the action with foreground elements and low source lighting. Camera operator Joe Chess further muddies the image by constantly adjusting focus and embracing a plethora of lens flares. This is a dark and chaotic-looking movie and, as a result, the transfer does feature some uneven digital grain and occasional issues with crushed black levels. On the other hand, a lot of the film is shot in close-up and the Red Epic system captures a whole lot of fine detail and patterns. When coupled with the format’s (sometimes uncannily) smooth gradations, this creates a relatively clean and complex image that doesn’t suffer from any notable compression artefacts. The concert sequences tend to be a little sharper due to the more intense lighting rigs and, in turn, have moderate over-sharpening effects. Colour quality is stylized, including desaturated browns, yellows, tans, and skin tones, which are complemented by oranges, blues, and a whole lot of brick red. It’s impressive, too, because the blues and reds serve a subtextual story context, i.e. they were the themed gang colours of the Bloods and Crips at the time of the story.

Audio


Straight Outta Compton is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The sound design is divided largely between intimate, dialogue-driven moments and big party/concert scenes, both of which manage to fill out the stereo and surround channels with environmental noise and movement. The everyday hustle and bustle of Compton that illuminates the speakers is lively, even when it isn’t particularly loud. And, of course, music plays a huge role in the film. All of the original score is credited to Joseph Trapanese, while the rest of the soundtrack is rounded out by the aggressive, bass-heavy sounds of hip-hop. The “on-screen” music used during concert scenes has an effective immersive quality (stuff like echo and movement, depending on camera position), while the overlying score/music is bombastic, tight, and mostly stereo-based. In addition, the process of studio sound mixing plays a narrative role and this gives the film’s sound designers another excuse to play with the layers and placement of the music.

 Straight Outta Compton

Extras


  • Commentary with director/producer F. Gary Gray (director’s cut only) – Gray is quite pleasant on this particularly thank-filled track, but spends an awful lot of effort describing the on-screen action and playing hype man to his cast and crew. Still, he fills the time without repeating himself too often and his respect for his collaborators goes far beyond the usual vague praise. The best moments are ones where he is describing a complicated shot, digging into the deeper history of the group and California hip-hop, or offering a personal slant on some of the stories. The most disappointing moments are ones where he downplays or outright denies the political texts of the movie and story, because the film’s modern relevance is one of its greatest strengths.
  • Five deleted/extended scenes (5:40, HD)
  • Deleted performance scene (1:30, HD)
  • N.W.A.: The Origins (3:50, HD) – A fluffy featurette that runs down the group’s early history with the filmmakers and surviving members.
  • Impact (1:40, HD) – More with Dre, Cube, Ren, and Yella on their career.
  • Director’s Journey (3:20, HD) – A look at the re-creation of the Rodney King riots.
  • The Streets: Filming in Compton (6:00, HD) – Behind-the-scenes on location in Compton.
  • N.W.A Performs in Detroit (4:50, HD) – N.W.A. and the filmmakers discuss the process of re-creating one of the group’s most iconic concerts.
  • Becoming N.W.A. (8:30, HD) – The cast talk about their characters and the input of the real members in terms of casting and training the actors.


 Straight Outta Compton

Overall


Straight Outta Compton is a good movie that is too trapped in the procedure of the biopic formula. As someone that is allergic to that formula, I found it difficult to overlook the predictable storytelling methods long enough to completely appreciate the strong performances and F. Gary Gray’s sometimes impressionistic direction. I’m also not a fan of the completely glorified portrayal of some characters and changes made to the story, but understand this is part and parcel with a mainstream Hollywood biopic. Universal’s Blu-ray looks nice, sounds fantastic, includes two cuts, and has a solid director’s commentary. The rest of the extras are weak, but it’s a small complaint.

 Straight Outta Compton

 Straight Outta Compton
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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