Music biographies are ten-a-penny, but whether it’s Dylan anthology I’m Not There, or Lennon retrospective, Nowhere Boy, they’re not that accessible to many outside of the fanbase. Friday director F. Gary Gray’s Chronicling of N.W.A.’s rise from the Compton projects to seminal hip-hop artists has much more than a character study of artists to deal with, it has powerful sociological themes that run parallel with issues we see saturating the rolling news channels on a daily basis, as well as an incredible soundtrack.
In mid-80’s California, we are introduced to the founder members of the group; Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a neighbourhood drug dealer, seen leaping across the rooftops to avoid the PoPo, Dre (Corey Hawkins) is a club DJ who’s couch surfing at Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson Jnr) place, and along with MC Ren and DJ Yella (Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr.) they form a rap group financed by Eazy’s ill-gotten gains. Signed by agent, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), they begin to get a reputation for the hard-hitting nature of their autobiographical lyrics, culminating in a track born from their own prejudicial run-ins with the LAPD and one which brought them to the attention of the FBI – “Fuck the Police”.
With a career that played out against a back-drop of the LA riots and Rodney King’s beating, one afflicted by make-ups and break-ups, the looming spectre of Suge Knight, and ultimate tragedy, Straight Outta Compton has enough material for multiple bonus tracks come the time the title song blasts out over the end credits. So it’s credit to Gray that he manages to make a coherent, involving film, balancing multiple cast-members, material that might have been more suited to an HBO mini-series, and pack it all into nearly two-and-a-half hours of powerful dramatic storytelling.
It’s really quite surprising how much emotion there is on display, especially with the arc of Eazy, one that’s seeped in sadness, and expertly portrayed by relative newcomer Mitchell. But with this saccharine, semi-hero worship, comes Straight Outta Compton’s only glaring problem; this only appears to be one side of the story. The film paints the gang as heroic musical revolutionaries, and while that’s true, it completely avoids the darker elements of their personalities, in particular their treatment of women, who in the film seem to occupy the same space they always have in the hip-hop genre, that of decoration.
The cast are uniformly excellent, with Ice Cube’s real son, O’Shea Jackson, embodying his father perfectly with a performance that indicates he could follow in his old man’s footsteps in terms of a film career. Hawkins, with perhaps the least developed of the on-screen personalities, does a great job of mimicking headphone magnate, Dr Dre, and Paul Giamatti is on-hand to flesh out pantomime villain of the piece, Jerry Heller, whose contract wrangles were the reason behind the groups acrimonious split.
Gray’s direction is polished and energetic, matching the risk-taking nature of its subject matter, plus the musical beats get under your skin in the same way the themes do. There is also an undeniable fist-pumping momentum to the story, and in keeping with the terminology of the film, Straight Outta Compton is tight, even at 147 mins long.
An education in hip-hop, from the emergence of Snoop Dogg, to the setting up of Death Row Records, with breakout performances, its power comes in its time-capsule portrayal of events that are echoed on the streets of American to this day, where it appears that a message that could lead to a cultural movement over twenty years ago, would be lost in the sound of gunfire today. It might have re-written the groups history with a slight bias, and does conform to a biography template, but this really feels like a film for our times.