Straight Outta Compton review - 'a wonderful and classically American story but it's airbrushed'
In the late 1980s, a raw, urgent and very angry sound began to emerge from the troubled ghettos of greater Los Angeles. Gangsta rap, which dramatised in rhyme the nefarious exploits of urban street gangs, had been knocking around for a few years, but when N.W.A. released their first studio album Straight Outta Compton in 1988 it became a crossover smash, selling three million copies and turning its young creators into superstars.
Unlike some of their contemporaries, Dr Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and the rest were the real deal, having grown up in the once respectable but now crime and gun-ridden LA suburb of Compton, where life was cheap and the cops were often your biggest enemy. What made N.W.A.'s album so riveting was its palpable fury, rough, raw language and boldly stated antagonism towards the forces of law and order. Songs like Gangsta Gangsta and F**k the Police would place the group at the centre of a furious debate about ghetto life, American values and the right to free speech: they didn't last long but loved every minute of it, and this sprawling Hollywood biopic tells their story.
It does so in a surprisingly conventional way, and Straight Outta Compton could easily be read as a classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story with some gangster movie tropes thrown in. It's pretty enjoyable for the most part, but faces some stiff challenges, not least the fact that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are listed as producers, which makes a whitewash of some sort inevitable.
F. Gary Gray's film opens in fine style, however, as cocky drug dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) goes about his dodgy business. It's 1986, and Eazy is paying a visit to a Compton drug den when it's raised by police using tanks and attack dogs. As chaos erupts, Eazy escapes out a window and flits gracefully across the rooftops to safety. He'll shortly help N.W.A. to escape from dead-end lives in Compton.
When Eazy befriends two young rappers called Andre 'Dr Dre' Young (Corey Hawkins) and O'Shea 'Ice Cube' Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr), they use his drug money to start a band.
Dre is the master arranger, Cube the poet, and Eazy a natural born performer, and with the help of MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr), N.W.A. is born. But even as they begin recording what will become their iconic first album, a portly fly languishes in the ointment.
Veteran manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) has been hired by Eazy, who seems to find him reassuringly Jewish. Heller will open doors for the band and land them a recording contract, but when N.W.A. go on tour and no one but Eazy appears to be getting paid for their trouble, many chickens flock home to roost.
It's a wonderful and classically American story, and F. Gary Gray and his writers tell it entertainingly if a little messily at times. Straight Outta Compton works best early on, when we witness the nightmarish uncertainty of life in the hood, as the young musicians are regularly accosted by the LAPD for committing the heinous crime of 'being black while standing'. The LA riots are only a couple of years off, and it's not hard to imagine how they got started.
The group's legendary concerts are memorably recreated, including a famous stand-off with the police in Detroit. The acting's pretty good too, especially from Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti and O'Shea Jackson Jr, who's playing his father and is the absolute spit of him. Mr Giamatti will don the fright wig to play an Iago-like villain once too often, but what can one do when he's just so darned good at it, and at least his character here has some depth, and nuance.
The film's problems begin when N.W.A. start to collapse, and an over-busy script is never sure whose story it should follow. And all the while one has the nagging suspicion that one is watching history as told by the winners.
Now read Tanya Sweeney's review: Straight Outta Compton review - 'it's not just a rapper's delight'