Something that you should know about me is that I love rap and hip-hop, and when I say rap and hip-hop, I am most certainly not talking about the brand of weak, watered down pop rap and hip-hop that has come to dominate the charts over the last decade and a half. For somebody so distinctly middle class, so distinctly British and so distinctly caucasian, from a young age I was drawn towards and came to love many of the names that pioneered and defined the gangsta rap genre in the late eighties and early nineties, and the chiefest among this group were N.W.A. Now almost 25 years since the split of the revolutionary group, the time has come for the story of N.W.A. to be given the big screen treatment, and I for one, was incredibly excited.
For the most part, Straight Outta Compton serves as a straight biopic of both the personal and professional lives of the founding members of N.W.A, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.). The film depicts the group’s rise from ghetto obscurity to global sensation, as well as all of the well documented disputes and obstacles that eventually lead to their disbandment in 1991. Of course, being a picture produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, some of the narrative decisions remain questionable with regards to complete character authenticity, but in terms of a cinematic journey, Straight Outta Compton proves itself to be one of the best musical biopics in years. Few plot points in the film will come as a surprise to well informed fans of N.W.A., but in its execution the picture is raw, vibrant, moving and really captures the emotion and atmosphere both of the violent streets of Los Angeles in the late eighties/early nineties and the effect that the birth of gangsta rap had on music at the time. What makes the film so engaging is, quite simply, the fact that the group’s story and each member’s individual stories are so interesting and endearing. From Ice Cube’s hard fought battle to solo success to Dr. Dre’s uneasy partnership with the infamous Suge Knight to Eazy-E’s tragic AIDS related death in 1995, Straight Outta Compton is so much more than just the story of a rap group, it is the showcasing of a legacy that incorporates far reaching themes including against the odds world domination, sexual health, gang violence and most notably police brutality, showing the audience scenes that sadly seem all too familiar even 25 years later. Though the film is very impressive, it is not perfect, with the two and half hour running time feeling a touch indulgent and bloated at certain points, as well as the above mentioned producing from Ice Cube and, in particular, Dr. Dre to attempt to rewrite or erase some of their less appealing history, but overall the picture serves as a more than worthy entry in to the music biopic genre that I feel has wide audience appeal outside of rap and hip-hop fans.
As with most biopics, the ultimate integrity of the film comes down to the performances of the cast, and in the case of Straight Outta Compton, the filmmakers have hit the jackpot with their key group of actors. More or less sharing equal top billing are Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson as Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and the three young men all give excellent performances as their respective characters. As Dre, Hawkins embodies the aspiring genius that we have since seen come to fruition not only in a musical context but also in a business context, and both the actor and character provide something of a grounded presence within the story, providing the audience with a (one can’t help but feel narratively manufactured) moral compass that guides us through the rest of the film. Jason Mitchell gives an enigmatic and charismatic performance as Eazy-E, perfecting his odd high pitched voice and his inherent early awkwardness as a young hustler who somehow finds himself in front of the mic at the centre of a rap empire. Eazy’s arc is undoubtedly the story with the most emotionally engaging material, and Mitchell takes the journey in his stride and really strikes a chord with the audience. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., of course, has the benefit of being Ice Cube’s real life son, but nevertheless he gives an eerily uncanny performance as his young father, not only looking the part but also absolutely nailing Cube’s mannerisms and strong presence. The chemistry between the three leads, along with Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. who make up the rest of the group, feels utterly authentic, and a quick mention for Paul Giamatti who overcomes a terrible wig to give a nuanced and interesting performance as the group’s controversial manager Jerry Heller.
Overall, Straight Outta Compton is a more than solid biopic that gives the audience a dramatised glimpse in to some of the most important moments in rap and hip-hop history. The story of N.W.A. is a story that needed to be told, and for whatever reason, 2015 seems to have been the perfect time to tell it on the big screen. Though no doubt some of the more sinister aspects of the gangsta rap lifestyle and more troubling true stories have been omitted for the sake compelling and morally safe cinematic narrative, the core of the group’s story remains, and essentially what we have is a classic American dream tale tinged with all the highs and lows that a great film needs. Straight Outta Compton and straight in to my top ten of the year.