(F. Gary Gray, USA, 2015)
While the film takes a few detours into the familiar, generic territory of the bio-pic - specifically the kind that deals with the music industry - it remains, overall, a finely-wrought, rousing experience. Gray and his excellent cast (for me the greatest discovery was Jason Mitchell, who radiates guile and charm as Eazy E), with a mighty assist from the fantastic Matthew Libatique - a cinematographer who continues to distinguish himself - immerse the viewer in the highs and lows of the N.W.A. story.
Compton is essentially a naturalistic, slice-of-life drama about some talented kids from the streets of South Central Los Angeles who happened to become superstars. Gray wisely keeps the focus tight on the characters, who are depicted with aplomb, and who anchor the story in the trauma and exuberance of inner city life. The choice is crucial: at the end of the day, the members of N.W.A. only have each other to rely upon, and their meager beginnings and spectacular success are an outgrowth not only of their individual wits and talent, but of the constant performance that hard life requires. Their ability to count on each other is challenged, of course, and all kinds of disaster intrudes upon their dizzying ascent, but they all share a recognition that they are getting away with something. Their elevator ride through the hidden-in-plain-sight edifice of American class imparts a hard, enduring lesson: guys like themselves aren't supposed to become rich and famous.
Gray's direction is most incisive when he's lingering on Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the rest of their crew as they joke, brag, argue, and spit verses. Elsewhere there are stretches of great, propulsive energy, on the streets and in the concert venues, but the heart of the movie is in the verbal exchanges between the central characters. This makes perfect sense - we're talking about hip-hop, after all - and we see the genesis and the genius of hip-hop's marriage of swagger, slang, rhythm, and rage. The stripped-down nature of early West Coast rap - the combination of soul and funk beats with lyrics about violence, drugs, and sex - is given a brilliant visual swing. The music is blunt and confrontational, but it is also mercurial, nimble, even ironic. And all of this is connected to the personalities of its creators, which Gray depicts with precision and palpable joy.
But while the stamp of authenticity keeps the music real (and selling), it also connects it to the darker side of what N.W.A. represents - a focused anger at the conditions in the ghetto, and the crime and suffering that are endemic to that world. While they effectively channeled and even liberated some of the pent-up rage at the brutal reality of official injustice, N.W.A. were also tethered to real-life gangsters, and moving away from the criminal element was a long, hard struggle. In the meantime, their hardships were compounded by crooked managers, vicious police, craven politicians, and their own personal foibles. Gray doesn't gloss over any of this, including the more toxic elements in their music and behavior - rampant disregard (and even abuse) of women, homophobia, and the small-minded machismo that claimed lives and perpetuated hatred. But this is secondary. A case could be made - and some have made it, for better or worse - that the film is too easy on its characters, too quick to paint them as essentially lovable guys who take some hard knocks on their way to enormous success.
Such are the pitfalls of the biopic, which must successfully reconcile poetic truths with the messy, doomed-to-be-unsatisfying truths of history. But for me, the ecstatic verve of the film at its finest moments is the film's greatest offering. Successfully enjoying old-school rap demands a certain separation of content and creative energy. Can this be done in good conscience? Gray seems to believe that it can be, and his use of the medium is persuasive indeed. In the end, the film is about the possibility of freedom through expression, even under the most unjust and bleak of circumstances. It's a welcome, timely theme, rendered beautifully.