UK Release Date: 28th August 2015
Runtime: 147 minutes
Director: F Gary Gray
Writer: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Starring: Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, R Marcos Taylor, Neil Brown Jr
Synopsis: Tracing the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of genre-defining hip hop outfit NWA, its internal feuds and struggles as well as the subsequent lives of the group’s original members.
Whatever you think of hip hop music and its associated culture, it’s impossible to deny the impact of NWA – a seminal group in the late 1980s. The members of the group, including Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy-E, became important and influential voices in the pop culture of the 80s and 90s. Thus, it was only a matter of time before their story got the movie treatment. The result, Straight Outta Compton, is one of the best music biopics of recent years.
Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and his friend Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr) are trying to find an outlet for the latter’s rap lyrics as part of the former’s DJ career. With the help of friend Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), they record single ‘Boyz N Tha Hood’ and are spotted by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). They are subsequently catapulted to stardom and achieve enormous success with their “truth raps”, as well as controversy given their very public hatred of the police.
The success of Straight Outta Compton is in its solid distillation of the rise and fall of NWA. Director F Gary Gray does a great job of conveying exactly what it was that caught fire around the group and illustrates their incendiary appeal with half an hour of near non-stop performing, writing and partying intercut with a sense of genuine heat on the streets. By the time the NWA are arrested on stage during a performance of ‘Fuck tha Police’, the tension is ready to explode.
| “People are scared of you guys. They think you’re dangerous, but the world needs to hear it.”
The central performances of the young stars are a key cog in Straight Outta Compton too, bringing surprising gravitas to roles that could easily have been dull and one-note. Corey Hawkins is perhaps the standout as producing supremo Dre, who is often the sane voice of reason in amongst the carnage. One midpoint moment, in which Dre learns of the death of his brother, is a moment of stunning poignancy that casts a sad shadow over the contractual infighting that characterises much of the film’s second half.
Alongside him is the broiling rage and omnipresent aggression of O’Shea Jackson Jr, playing his real life father Ice Cube in uncanny fashion. Jackson is handed much of the narrative lifting and does a stellar job with it. Jason Mitchell, as Eazy-E, thrives as comic relief during the film’s opening act before coming to an emotional head in his shockingly raw depiction of E’s tragic death of AIDS in 1995.
In order to best portray NWA’s careers, Straight Outta Compton puts its gas pedal through the floor and ramps up the intensity from the first moment. Even as it spends much of its runtime focused on contract negotiations – with Paul Giamatti playing a role almost identical to his turn in Love & Mercy – the film finds plenty of room to create tension and drama from the backroom grappling that led to the implosion of NWA.
| “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”
If Straight Outta Compton has a fatal flaw, and it does, that’s in its desire to toe the party line. NWA members Ice Cube and Dr Dre both appear amongst the film’s producers and, as a result, the film often feels rather friendly to the group and lauds their views rather than questioning them. There’s also a remarkably self-congratulatory final montage, which highlights the successes that the band members – particularly Dre and Cube – have experienced since leaving the group. It feels like a cheap note at the end of an otherwise excellent film.
At a time when much of cinema feels like homogenised blockbuster fare, it’s refreshing to see a mainstream feature with edge and flair. Both in front of the camera and behind it, Straight Outta Compton is an incendiary feature about an important part of modern music history.
Pop or Poop?
Tracing a hugely significant cultural phenomenon, Straight Outta Compton is an enthralling music biopic with real punch and impact. F Gary Gray, in the director’s chair, brings a real energy to the story and enlivens a story that could easily be mired in talking rather than acting.
The performances are stellar across the board and, although the ending pats the NWA members on the back a little too readily, the film is exactly the sort of work that such an important group deserves.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.