Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: F Gary Gray
Stars: O’Shea Jackson jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown jr, Paul Giamatti, R Marcos Taylor, Tate Ellington, Cleavon McClendon, Corey Reynolds, Keith Powers, Lisa Renee Pitts, Alexandra Shipp, Marlon Yates jr, Carra Patterson.
Rap music is not to my taste, and many people find the misogynistic ideas, homophobia and anti-authoritarian messages of the often angry lyrics offensive. Much of the so-called gangsta rap music was born out of a frustration felt by younger black youths who were harassed by the police and who daily lived with the spectre of drugs and gang related violence. NWA was one of the pioneers of this genre of rap music, and this gritty drama depicts their rise from the streets of Compton, a tough predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles characterised by drugs and gang violence, to the dizzy heights of the music industry and their fall when they split over money issues and musical direction.
NWA was basically formed by Andre Young (aka Dr Dre, played by Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (played by his real life son O’Shea Jackson jr), with Eric Wright (aka Easy-E, played by Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown jr). NWA gave the people a voice and they spoke about things that they experienced on the streets of their neighbourhood. Their music was a reflection of their reality, and many found it threatening and uncomfortable. They revolutionised hip hop music with their earnest and gritty tales of life in the rough hood which tapped into the consciousness of a generation. Their honesty and confrontational style earned them the title of the world’s most dangerous group.
Dre was working part time as a DJ at a night club. Ice Cube was an aspiring songwriter who scribbled lyrics while riding the bus on the way to school. Easy-E was dealing drugs, and he used the proceeds from this illegal activity to fund early recordings, which attracted the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who guided their career. But their music, especially their controversial hit song F*** The Police, also attracted the ire of the conservative establishment, and they even clashed with authorities at their concerts. At one concert in Detroit the band were warned by the local police not to perform their controversial song, but of course they ignore the warning and their defiant act sparks a confrontation that almost turned into a full on riot.
Many of the early rock stars were also rebels and their music, which often spoke of their own situation and how they struggled to fit into a society that didn’t understand them, shocked an older generation. In some ways, NWA’s story is familiar. Eventually the group succumbed to the temptations of their fame and fortune, and fell apart due to internal tensions, conflicts over money and their suspicions of Heller. The various members of the group lived large and enjoyed the initial trappings of their success, which took them far from Compton.
As a result of his hedonistic lifestyle, Easy-E contracted AIDS, which lends a more emotional angle to the story. Dr Dre forms Death Row records with Shuge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), who is presented here as little more than a brutal thug than a record company executive. Knight played a role in the violent rivalry between the east coast and west coast rappers, but that is not touched upon here.
Writers S Leigh Savidge (a music documentarian) and Alan Wenkus, Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) and first time scripter Jonathan Herman take some liberties with the story for dramatic purposes. They also place NWA’s musical journey against the turbulent backdrop of America of the late 80s and early 90s. The script effectively trawls through the era, charting the rise and fall of NWA against the changing face of America, and key events like the Rodney King beating and the LA riots are all touched upon. But there is also a sense that more has been left out and glossed over. Over the end credits we get some archival footage of the real NWA and gain an appreciation of how influential they have been in shaping the contemporary music scene.
But at 147 minutes the film is too long for what it has to say, and there is some material that smacks of padding and the pace flags a little in the middle sections.
The director is F Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off, etc), whose films have often dealt with the African-American experience, and he brings a sense of authenticity to the material, and presents a rather grim and confronting view of Compton here. Gray also brings a brutal honesty and plenty of attitude to the film, and he captures the energy and anarchic style of rap music. One early scene shows the band arriving at the recording studio in a plush area of Los Angeles only to be harassed by the police because of their skin colour. He also infuses the few live concert scenes with plenty of energy. Apparently Gray had the actors rerecord NWA’s album so that they got a feel for the music and appeared more convincing when performing.
Gray has cast astutely, with the young actors resembling their real life counterparts. Jackson jr looks uncannily like a younger version of his famous father, and he delivers a solid performance that captures some of his father’s energy and anger. Hawkins is also impressive as Easy, and elicits more sympathy from the audience. Hawkins is also very good as Dre. Giamatti brings his usual sleazy persona to this role here, but, rather than playing Heller as an out and out sleazebag, he actually brings shades of grey to his performance as the opportunistic dodgy agent. As MC Ren and DJ Yella, Hodge and Brown bring some much needed humour to the material.
There have been many biopics of rap musicians, including Eminem’s 8 Mile, and Notorious, about the life and death of Brooklyn rapper Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G., but given the number of characters to follow and the complexity of their story, Straight Outta Compton has a larger canvas to explore and at times seems to lose focus. Straight Outta Compton, which takes its name from NWA’s debut album, will resonate strongly with audiences who like gangsta rap, but may struggle to find an appreciative audience from those with little interest in that style of music.