Straight Outta Compton: Film Review
Cast: O'Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Director: F Gary Gray
Like any good record, Straight Outta Compton boasts both an exciting A side and a bloated B side.
The biopic of the formation of seminal 1980s rap group NWA is all street and all bluster as it predominantly depicts the rise and fall of Dr Dre, Eazy E and Ice Cube. Starting in the ghettos of Compton, the film sees Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) teaming up with Dre (Hawkins) and Cube (Ice Cube's real life son O'Shea Jackson Jr) to try and break their version of rap through the clubs that were more concerned with R'n'B - or as one club promoter puts it early on, "pussy, not pistols".
Igniting a simmering rage that underlies the streets thanks to the continual harassment of the African American community by the mainly white LA police force and against a backdrop of their own personal experiences and the Rodney King beating, NWA rises to the top.
But, along the way, tensions simmer within the group when it's discovered that Eazy E and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, in his second record svengali role of the year after the brilliant Love and Mercy) appear to be making more money than the rest of the band members. Most put out about this is Ice Cube, whose lyrics arguably contributed to the band's rapid ascent....
There's no denying that Straight Outta Compton is a searing biopic and depiction of the social times and climes within an America that's continually ripped by race.
But there's also no denying there's a powerful film here that soars in its first half as it charts the rise and documents the energy and electricity of the performances of the band before it becomes bogged down. The second half of the film is mired by a myriad of plot strands and too many piecemeal threads being tied together, as well as drama that's not particularly dramatic as it negotiates contract disputes with Heller et al and the appearances of the likes of Snoop Dogg. It also suffers from a melodramatic soundtrack that crashes and underscores very heavily every dramatic beat in the back half.
Equally, there are tantalising hints of life outside the group for the main trio, specifically Dre, whose family tensions are hinted at with his wife but frustratingly thrown to one side, almost as if they had forgotten about Dre. And don't even get me started on the treatment of the mainly topless sexualised women within (yet another barb to be thrown at rap music in general)
Thankfully, some incredible performances from O'Jackson Jr, Hawkins and Mitchell give Straight Outta Compton its heart, humour and braggadacio. O'Jackson Jr in particular feels like you're watching a young Ice Cube, thanks largely to the son looking like the father - and he brings an energy to the early performances, which galvanise and unite the crowd, while ignoring some of the real controversy NWA's lyrics brought to the fore.
It's probably no surprise that with Dre and Cube being producers on the film that it's somewhat of a whitewash, glossing over the meatier parts of their career, the debate provoked by their rap and while the tensions with the police give an insight into the simmering feelings of the time, it's never anything more than black and white.
When Straight Outta Compton concentrates on the electric performances of NWA and their effect on a trodden on society, it's nothing short of searing and tremendously successful - it's just unfortunately that in the best part of 2 and a half hours, the energy lags and the second half of the film is like a B-side that you'd quite happily skip to go back to the A side again.