Anyone who’s read through many of the articles and reviews here will probably have noticed that despite my fairly broad embracing of musical styles, hip hop is something that I have, over the years, struggled to appreciate (though I have to credit both Asylum Seekas and DJ Oneofakind for their help with what I do like), so, coming to Straight Outta Compton, a film chatting the history of ‘gangster rap’ originators N.W.A., I did wonder how well I would connect with it.
It wasn’t long into F. Gary Gray’s director’s cut edition of the film though that, whatever the style of music being created in the story, two things connected me with it deeply.
First is that this is a story about youthful rebellion, much like rock ‘n’ roll and punk in decades prior, though arguably these youths had a lot more to rebel against.
Secondly is that this yet another of that most cliché of cliché’s for Hollywood, The American Dream – so much so that there were a couple of points that had me comparing Straight Outta Compton to La La Land which also uses this as a framework for its musical action.
Starting off by introducing to our protagonists, the young men who would soon become N.W.A., and particularly Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the original Cube’s son), Gray drops us right into the heart of the action.
We meet ‘E’ in the midst of a drug deal as it goes wrong and the LAPD intervene with something resembling a tank – if that doesn’t set up just how extreme the situation of inner city Los Angeles was in the early 1980s then nothing will.
Dre’s situation is somewhat more sedate though still troubled as he is kicked of his mother’s house, dreaming of making music while missing out on steady work, and Cube’s introduction comes with a gang hold up on a school bus.
From there the plot is fairly well trodden, the group hit an artistic and commercial high before becoming embroiled with the kind of music industry stuff that seems to catch up with all successful musicians eventually.
As it goes on the troubles get more extreme and it all comes to a bittersweet conclusion, but with a sense of hope. I’m sure if you care that much you’ll already know the story but as I didn’t I won’t spoil it anymore than that.
What really makes this all work and be so captivating for its near three hours is that, while it’s clear some elements are fictionalised, the whole thing has a ring of truth to it whether in a literal or artistic sense and the performances are all excellent and entirely convincing.
Part of this may be down to that fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors (besides Paul Giamatti who seems born to play sleazy managerial types) so as the cast all physically resemble the people they are playing to a degree they are able to inhabit them without baggage.
That goes for the smaller roles too as we meet the likes of Snoop Dogg and, briefly, 2-Pac as the film goes on really helping to place this in the wider context of the musical scene of hip hop at the time.
The other thing that really works in the film’s favour is how it uses the music it is talking about.
From scenes in studios (ranging from bedrooms to high-end industry facilities) to a recreation of a national tour, the music is used as part of the narrative, not just a byproduct of it, giving the film the feeling of being something of a musical, albeit in an unconventional sense.
This is highlighted by a concert in Detroit where a riot is instigated as the local constabulary try to shut down the show as N.W.A. unleash the vicious, and massively appropriate, Fuck tha Police.
As the film winds down things get more emotional and again the performances come to the fore with a more grown up feel.
It all climaxes not only with the sense that we’ve watched the story of a musical group, but we’ve experienced along with them the journey of five young men from adolescence to adulthood through some hugely tumultuous times and experiences.
Added to that is the notion (quite rightly) that this all had a genuine effect not just on these five men but on culture, politics and life not just in Compton, but the USA and around the world making Straight Outta Compton at once personal and political while having a lot to say about the troubled ongoing, real world, narrative of The American Dream.