From the outset, a HBO mini-series would appear to have been the more logical fit for the epic story charting the rise and fall of notorious LA-based rap group NWA. The pioneering band not only established the West Coast rap scene, but following their break-up, key members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube went on to create mini empires of their own, with Dre in particular having a huge hand in the evolution and commercialisation of hip hip. It’s fair to say there’s much ground to cover in Straight Outta Compton (2015) and it’s to the credit of director F. Gary Gray and his group of scriptwriters that they’ve managed to streamline and wrestle potentially unwieldy material into an absorbing and rousing biopic, which just about sustains it’s near three hour running time.
It’s broad appeal (the film did phenomenal business at the box office) is due largely to Gray’s confidence with the material, which infuses a sometime moving coming-of-age sensibility with a blistering account of social unrest and retaliation thorough art. A surprisingly action-packed opening sees band member Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) escape during a police drugs raid on the home of one of his connections. It’s the money from Eazy’s questionable profession which helps initially bankroll the recordings of him and his fellow band members, who amongst them include Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) and the younger school-aged O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr playing his own father). The crew are all caught up in the simmering racial tensions of their South Central neighbourhood, and it’s their grievances with the racist and overzealous LA law enforcement which helps inform their creativity. Soon enough, under the not-so-honest guidance of veteran producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) they’re playing to a rapt audience of similarly disenfranchised youths.
The band’s quick ascend to stardom also brings them infamy (cue guns and groupies’ tour shenanigans) but clashing egos and distrust gradually drives a wedge between lyricist Cube and Eazy, resulting in a split which places the members on very different career paths. Armed with a decent budget, Gray is able to offer a vivid interpretation of that combustable period in US culture, and this really comes to the fore during the recreation of the band’s electrifying gigs, all of which seem to hover on the precipice of danger and violence. He also has an exceptional cast of young performers to really help sell the story. Jackson Jr has his dad’s swagger down to a fine art, while Hawkins is excellent as the conflicted Dre, even if there’s the nagging suspicion that his real-life exploits have been a little diluted for the screen (Dre and Cube both have producing credits).
The second half of the film can’t match the momentum of what has come before, but it settles into a compelling, Machiavellian look at the darker aspects of the musical industry of that time (the formidable figure of Suge Knight is one of the many unwelcome destructive influences the band members are faced with). Straight Outta Compton more than deserves a place amongst the very best music biopics, and even those who possess merely a passing familiarity with NWA will be fighting the urge to fist-pump as the hits are blasted out.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76