Straight Outta Compton, film review: The band movie that's got the wrong attitude

(15) F. Gary Gray, 140 mins. Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr
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Straight Outta Compton is an unwieldy, expletive-strewn sprawl of a musical biopic. It combines energy and attitude with a leaky and ultimately very unsatisfying storyline. The filmmakers' lumpen, chronological approach to their subject matter doesn't help. Every so often, there are lurches forward in time. New characters appear and disappear. The attitude toward women is appalling (the film has barely started when one drug dealer is threatened for "disrespecting my house whore").

The early scenes are the best. Director F. Gary Gray depicts late 80s Compton, from where hip-hop group N.W.A (Niggaz wit' Attitude) emerged, in vivid and abrasive fashion. This is a part of LA in which kids risk being gun whipped on their school bus and in which police brutality is rife. (We are just a few years away from the Rodney King assault and the riots that followed.) Five kids from the area – Ice Cube (Jackson), Dr Dre (Hawkins), Eazy-E (Mitchell), DJ Yella (Brown) and MC Ren (Hodge) – form the band. Dr Dre is the musical genius who mixes the beats. Eazy-E is the street hustler who becomes the band's singer. Paul Giamatti plays the Brian Epstein-like manager Jerry Heller who comes through on his promise to make N.W.A "legit" to reach a huge mainstream audience. In time-honoured fashion, he also rips them off royally.

As in almost every film about the rise and fall of bands, the old friends fall out and there are moments of reckless self-destructiveness. Ice Cube, in particular, is frustrated at the way his contribution is overlooked.

A tension is obvious at the heart of Straight Outta Compton. Dr Dre and Ice Cube (who both have producer credits) are today respected, very influential figures in mainstream US entertainment. One senses that revisiting their past is both a source of pride (N.W.A was a groundbreaking band) and of embarrassment.

One of the frustrations here is the very sketchy way certain subjects are treated. We never really learn why Dr Dre worked so closely with Suge Knight (played in very intimidating fashion by R. Marcus Taylor) or what happened to Jerry Heller. The East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry is alluded to but never properly explained. The band's political agenda is skated over too. There is a lingering feeling that the film would have worked much better with a narrower and sharper focus.