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USA 2015
Directed by
F. Gary Gray
147 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Straight Outta Compton

Synopsis: In the mid-1980s, the streets of Compton, in South Los Angeles, were some of the most dangerous in the country. Here, five young men who became known as Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) translated their experiences into brutally honest music that rebelled against abusive authority and, in doing so, gave an explosive voice to a generation.  Their hip hop group, N.W.A., revolutionized music and pop culture by speaking the truth about life in the ‘hood and ignited a cultural war.

F. Gary Gray has carved out a career directing good but not great action thrillers such as The Italian Job (2003) along with less successful outings like Be Cool (2005). With his new film, though, he raises the bar significantly, bringing us a story that is so much more than just a biopic of a successful hip hop band. The rise and fall of N.W.A.  is necessarily a chronicle of the ‘80s and ‘90s in South Central LA, not just as documented in the raw and angry lyrics of their songs but also in the events that inspired them, mostly to do with racially driven police brutality that reached its nadir in 1992 with the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots that followed the not-guilty verdict against the offending police officers.  

But this is also a story of the ‘80s, that decade of excess that is so well epitomised here in the outrageous parties, in the sex, drugs and weaponry, and in the lifestyle that ultimately seduces them, especially the band’s financial founder and lead rapper, Eric (AKA Eazy-E) who falls under the spell of dodgy business manager, Jerry Heller, played with depth and subtlety by Paul Giamatti.  Always a standout in almost any role he plays, Giamatti brings to this role the same sharp eye for sleaze and self-interest that made him so good in another of this year’s great explorations of iconic music groups, Love and Mercy

But Giamatti’s not alone in delivering an outstanding  performance. The members of the band, especially the three key characters – Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy-E – are effortlessly embodied by their respective actors. It’s one thing to find good look-alikes for this kind of film, it’s another to find actors who not only bear a striking resemblance, but that can authentically deliver a believable hip hop performance and then shift gear into the demands of the dramatic scenes whilst finding the chemistry that makes us believe they are truly friends.

Earlier this year, we saw the release of Dope, a film set twenty years after this story in the same location about three teenagers who idolise this era of hip hop. It’s a good companion piece for Straight Outta Compton in that it gives us a sense that many of the social issues which gave rise to the formation of N.W.A. still exist, and that the power of the songs these guys gave us both as the group and then, later, in their individual careers, still resonates today.

I must admit to not being a great fan of hip hop (although the N.W.A. performances are so excitingly staged that I could well change my mind) but the story here is so compelling, the characters so strong and the era so fascinating that the specific subject of the film becomes secondary to its more universal appeal.  Perhaps, at almost two and a half hours running time, it threatens to outstay its welcome in its latter parts, but the excellent camera work and editing, along with the well-judged balance of scenes devoted to songs and scenes devoted to character and story keep us glued to the screen. This was well reflected in the audience at the screening I attended which was equal part hip hop fans and equal part reviewers and general public. The hip hop fans knew all the lyrics and character idiosyncrasies by heart and clearly did not walk away disappointed, whilst people like me were more taken by the story in which the performances sit. We too were not disappointed.  As Dr Dre says on more than one occasion, “this is really dope!”




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