Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Straight Outta Compton

You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

And with these words, one of the most influential and seminal records of all time begins. The album is Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, a hip hop group from Compton, California. Released in 1989, the album was hugely controversial with songs glorifying drugs and crime, as well as the authorities-bashing F**k tha Police. It got to the point where N.W.A were banned from many radio stations and often had to perform with police present - ready to stop their shows at any second. But there’s more to N.W.A than you might think. Nowadays, many will dismiss them as just being chavvy rappers with no artistic merit or cultural relevance. But F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, out now on DVD & Blu-Ray, aims to change that.

 In terms of delivery, Straight Outta Compton is a fairly typical rags-to-riches biopic. It is much more than that. We meet our heroes living in crime-ridden poverty, as both the racist police department and local gangs rule the streets. Expressing their anger at this world through lyrics, “Ice Cube” joins up with “Eazy-E”, “MC Ren”, “DJ Yella” and of course “Dr Dre” to form the now infamous band. At two and a half hours, or almost 3 if you’re watching the director’s cut, Straight Outta Compton covers a lot of ground. We start in 1986 and finish up in 1996, and you really feel this time pass – in a good way. Most films cop out and stick a “(x) YEARS LATER” subtitle here, there and everywhere, skipping huge chunks of time. But here, you feel like you’re seeing everything. And yet the film still flies by. When the characters are looking back at the end of the epic 3 hours, you truly feel like you’re looking back with them and that you’ve been on this huge journey. It feels more like a series than a film.

This is down to a number of factors. Firstly, the cast are phenomenal – something that makes or breaks any biopic. Ice Cube’s son portrays his father here, so of course has an advantage where voice and appearance is concerned – it’s an often uncanny resemblance, and a damn good performance. But Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr make up N.W.A with almost equal resemblance and certainly equally powerful performances. Hawkins and Mitchell, playing Dr Dre and Eazy-E respectively, are particularly impressive. The passion these actors portray in their roles makes the story that more inspiring and believable, and I often felt I was watching a documentary they’re that good. Outside of the band, there aren’t a huge amount of characters. The great Paul Giamatti, recently seen playing a twat in the music world in Love & Mercy, plays another twat in the music world here as Jerry Heller, N.W.A’s somewhat shifty manager.

A dear friend of mine once said that he didn’t have a specific genre of music he liked, but rather that he could listen to anything if he could hear the passion in the performers. That passion is something N.W.A delivered in spades, and something that is really the main theme of Straight Outta Compton. The band started from nothing and stood up for the things they believed in. Their violent lyrics and aggression, at least in their debut album from which this biopic gets its name, had purpose. It wasn’t just for the sake of it, it was to make a point. And it certainly made one, being widely considered a pioneering and ground-breaking piece of work that had an enormous impact on the US, while still to this day being the hip hop record. Unfortunately, they still have a name for themselves as being ‘gangsta thugs’ but music/culture historians and people with brains can see they’re much more than that.

Straight Outta Compton is lucky in that it had the permission to use the band’s original music, lending a huge amount of authenticity to the tale. Many music biopics – recently, the Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side – aren’t granted this privilege. But with Ice Cube and Dr Dre producing this film, you can expect to hear all of the tunes you love (or hate, depending on who you are). And don’t worry, Ice Cube and Dr Dre’s involvement doesn’t make this a love letter to themselves. The film doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the story and often paint unflattering pictures of themselves. Very impressive.

In conclusion, Straight Outta Compton is an incredible piece of work. Far better than I think the entire world was expecting, really. Initially dismissed as being a thuggy tale for wannabe gangstas, the film found itself on the receiving end of critical acclaim, huge box office success and award nominations. This is an important film because many of the racial hatred themes are still rife, but also an inspiring and timeless film about the power of music and the strength of passion. It was one of the best films of 2015, and now you can own it. You lucky people.

Straight Outta Compton is a phenomenal film, and one that is truly deserving of a perfect 5/5.


Sam Love

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