More flashy portrait than in-depth chronicle, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015) is an easy-to-digest, colourful retelling of the meteoric rise of rap pioneers N.W.A.. With their in-your-face lyrical style – explicit, crude and yet pulsing with a street-earned erudition – they quickly forged a reputation for tackling societal ills from an authentic out-of-the-projects perspective. Brandishing a fearless, brutally defiant tone, their music instantly struck a chord with a black population simultaneously yearning for a legitimate voice to call their own and disillusioned by the ongoing abuses of authority from police and lawmakers.
The impression here is often of success more accidental than by design but N.W.A. were to become an unstoppable force. Not inclined to look back or stop and smell the roses, they rode a wave of euphoria, gathering force like a rolling stone as they traversed the States, the urgency of their words striking home like an onslaught of spoken-word bullets. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) initially acts as their spiritual leader, the one leading negotiations with a manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), hungering for a new hot act to track back into the big-time.
The danger signs were there from the outset in terms of the band leaving themselves open to exploitation but N.W.A.’s rationale was simply to seize the moment, to galvanise the population in aligning with their cause. None of the other band members, including Ice Cube (played by his real son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) or Dr.Dre (Corey Hawkins) – or the sidelined, less substantial MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) – possessed any real aptitude for the financial side of the business, it seems, and this eventually contributes to a splintering of the group as Cube firstly, senses that he’s been duped and heads off into the sunset in search of a solo career.
The progression of the film feels mightily commercial in stringing together the main beats of the band’s trajectory through waves of ecstasy, turmoil and revival. There’s a distinct impression of the grittily forged details and subtleties being avoided or necessarily overlooked for the sake of pacing. In this regard, Gray certainly manages to work some kind of elusive magic with the whole journey never flagging in interest even as it stretches out to nearly 150 minutes.
This band-sanctioned retelling of events naturally comes with a few caveats attached: certainly there’s undeniable veracity to be explored through each surviving member’s insights into real events. Yet, conversely, you sense the effect of them being able to wield just as much authority in the writing and editing process, conveniently omitting salacious, less savoury aspects of their lives – which is, apparently, the case if even a cursory on-line investigation is anything to judge by.
All the performers are excellent, with Mitchell a knockout as the undersized Eazy-E, able to project authority and prove his credentials with the force of his personality. Hawkins is just as fine as the always rational Dre, whilst Jackson Jr. is particularly effective in mimicking the surly disposition that his father seems to have been born with. Straight Outta Compton does a brilliant job of tapping into the feel and energy of a seminal musical act and the momentum they created during a very specific place in time. It may not amount to a deep exploration of its subjects but it’s an undeniably fast-paced, often absurdly entertaining one.