Despite the familiarity of its “rise and fall” narrative, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is no less engaging as it tracks the establishment, triumph and disbandment of N.W.A. (I suggest you look up what the letters stand for), one of the hip-hop genre’s most successful musical troupes; in fact the fluency of its structure is only likely to help the film garner relatability to an audience who would most likely unwillingly immerse themselves in the lives of young men whose hard-hitting song titles include such gems as “F**k Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”. It is a major plus too that director F. Gary Gray (‘Friday’, the remake of ‘The Italian Job’) has compiled a story that is so entertaining and drenched with intense passion that it rarely loses its feet as it showcases a group of men whose success was never grand enough to keep them from making mistakes.
The film initially introduces us to each member of the group as individuals, though it isn’t long before we realise they are all friends with a shared passion for music and its production. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a lower-level drug dealer whose filmic introduction is quite the electric sequence as we witness him barely surviving a drug raid. Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is determined to make something of his life through DJ-ing and producing music, a path his working-class mother isn’t so sure of. And O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) is a hot-headed lyricist whose growing tired of the constant harassment from the police and neighbourhood gangs. With Dre’s beat production and universal vision, Eazy E’s drug money, and Cube’s rhymes, the foundation was laid for what was to become a revelation in the music community; the film doesn’t forget fellow founding members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) but sadly offers very little in the way of character for the two as evidently the trio of Dre, E and Cube proved far larger personalities.
With their hard sound unlike anything that had been heard before, it wasn’t long until they were picked up by a manager, and with the arrival of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) came what some could say was the beginning of the end for N.W.A.. Taking a shine to E’s business insight, Heller played all the right notes in the initial stages of their success as he self-imposed himself as their handler, and through his exclusive relationship with E, had no troubles holding on to the profits the group was accumulating thanks to their successful tours; the film highlights Cube’s eagerness to be rightfully paid for the work he is doing much to Heller’s dismay. The further the film travels with their story, where the group’s ever-growing popularity leads to in-fighting and eventual separation, the more conventional it becomes and though it carries a rather hefty 145 minute screentime, it occasionally feels like its rushing through some of the more important details, perhaps in a bid to compile all the big moments the group experienced; Cube’s scriptwriting for his film ‘Friday’ is mentioned in the most casual of fashions whilst the brief appearances of Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac (Marcc Rose) feel less essential and more enforced.
Still, these are minor quarrels for a film that is consistently energetic and filled to the brim with stellar performances with the lead trio of Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. carrying the weight of the film on their shoulders with a professional comfort. Mitchell comes close to stealing the film as Eazy-E, and though it’s easy to criticise the film for being less than kind to the late man’s legacy (E tragically passed away from AIDS in 1995) it’s never in doubt that his character is still viewed in a sympathetic light, and Mitchell nails every nuance of his temperament. Hawkins is the more subtle performer portraying Dre as the most introspective member of the group, whilst Jackson (an absolute spitting image of his father) is simply Ice Cube, delivering an utterly uncanny performance of the once-intimidating artist who has grown to be one of the industry’s most loveable comedians.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ shines brightest when it focuses on the art N.W.A. were creating, with moments like the show-stopping concert in Detroit where the group are arrested for defying the law that forbade them performing “F**k Tha Police” solidifying their status in music history as rebels of the industry. Though films of this ilk are not uncommon, groups like N.W.A. are and this surprisingly sophisticated feature stands as both a great introduction to an audience unversed and a welcome reunion for those accustomed.
My rating: 4/5
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp
Classification: MA15+ (Strong Coarse Language)
Review by Peter Gray