Notorious rap group N.W.A., angry and defiant pioneers of gangster rap, get the Hollywood treatment with Straight Outta Compton, a celebratory biopic that chronicles the band’s rise from the gritty streets of LA’s Compton in the late-1980s to fame, fortune and fallings-out in the early-1990s.
Opening with the rattling noise of a police helicopter flying overhead, the movie immediately grabs us with its depiction of the world of gangs, drugs and police violence out of which the group’s urgent, confrontational songs emerged.
In the very first scene, a six-tonne police tank rips apart the house in which N.W.A. founder member Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) has been transacting a fraught drug deal.
Strikingly, it is the proceeds of E’s dealing that subsequently funds the band’s label, Ruthless Records, and it is his macho bravado and street swagger, as much as the musical and lyrical skills of fellow bandmates Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr playing his own father), that proves crucial to N.W.A.’s early success.
Straight Outta Compton is at its most compelling when the band’s adversaries are the authorities, with a standout scene coming when the musicians find themselves roughly harassed by the police while taking a break outside a recording studio in a predominantly white neighbourhood.
But the film’s energy level noticeably sags in the second half when the band are at odds with each other, and with their manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti in a white wig), and the narrative gets bogged down in contract wrangles and royalty disputes. By then, however, like the band itself, the movie has already made its powerful mark.
Certificate 15. Runtime 157 mins. Director F Gary Gray
Straight Outta Compton debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today and is available on Blu-ray & DVD, courtesy of Universal Pictures UK.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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