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Straight Outta Compton

Year: 2015
Production Co: Circle of Confusion
Studio: Universal
Director: F Gary Gray
Producer: Dr Dre/Ice Cube
Writer: Jonathan Herman/Andrea Berloff/S Leigh Savidge/Alan Wenkus
Cast: Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr, Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, R Marcos Taylor, Carra Peterson, Keith Stanfield

If you don't know the story of NWA's rise to prominence and the ego clashes and fallout that followed it, Straight Outta Compton is a good place to start.

But a word of warning (and it's not the excessive language) about whose version of events this is. It's not that of founding member Eric 'Eazy-E' Wright, who died of HIV in 1995. It's not that of Suge Knight, the producer/former security guard/apparent thug who got out of prison a few years back only to run two people down with his car near the Straight Outta Compton set in south central LA this year.

And it's not that of Jerry Heller, the group's longtime manager history remembers as a self-interested manipulator who used divide and conquer tactics to create rifts among the members.

If you have no idea that founding members Dr Dre and Ice Cube produced the movie, the way they're portrayed will make it quite plain. However truthful, producer Dre (Corey Hawkins) and lyricist Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr, son of the real Ice Cube) are the good guys, surrounded their whole careers with Svengalis who want a piece of the money machine NWA became and extracted it by any means, be they contractual, stand-over tactics or violence.

When Dre turns to Suge Knight to tell him the name of the new company he's starting after quitting Death Row (the label he and Knight founded which went on to sign Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and others) the final word in the script is a reverential plug for Aftermath, the company he still runs.

After that, the end credits contain clips and slides about the huge success both men have enjoyed since – a movie career for Cube and the $3bn sale of headphone business Beats By Dre to Apple last year. There's no mention of the less palatable stories, like the time Dre apparently cornered a female music journalist in a club and had his bodyguards hold the crowd back while he repeatedly slammed her head against a wall because of something she said in an article he didn't like.

The point is, you should understand from the outset that it's the Dre and Cube show. As former drug dealer Eazy, Jason Mitchell has a fully formed role because he was as much a lynchpin to the group's rise and demise, conspiring with Heller to pay himself much more than the other guys and causing the first split when Ice Cube went solo in 1990.

As depicted in the movie, Eazy approached Cube and Dre not long before his death with the idea of getting the original group back together without Heller, and they've spoken plenty of times about how they buried the hatchet. But no such reconciliation has ever taken place with Heller (Paul Giamatti) or Knight (R Marcos Taylor), so the film portrays the former as a money-grubbing cheat and the latter as a violent hooligan who thought he was a respected businessman.

As for NWA's other members, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) and MC Ren (Aldus Hodge), they're mere background players, reduced more than once to mere comic relief.

All that said, Straight Outta Compton is wildly entertaining. F Gary Gray's (The Italian Job) direction is played as straight as Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) and Jonathan Herman's script. There are no jumps backwards or forwards in time, no subtextual sequences of trippy visuals and no fancy camerawork. It tells the story of the guys meeting, making records and becoming stars in straightforward fashion with a minimum of flourish.

We meet them in the mid 80s as they come into each others' lives and decide to form a rap group to express their anger at the way the black residents of LA's titular city are harassed, profiled and brutalised at the hands of the LAPD. In a few short years, they've moved on from small local venues in Compton and are getting letters of warning from the FBI, raising the ire of politicians and parents the world over and living in the Hollywood Hills swimming in money, drugs, cars and ho's like their music always talked about.

Aside from the drama surrounding the splits and rifts there's a really effective sense of something big building. You'll feel the groundswell of excitement about the group's increasing impact just like fans did about their incendiary music at the time. Even though there's nothing fancy happening with the camera, everyone delivers the savagely acerbic script with powerful outrage, and there's a very raw energy in the film that parallels the group's early music.

The casting is great, everyone looking and sounding like the real people they depict. Not only is every actor in the cast perfect for his or her part, several among them – especially Taylor as Suge Knight and Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg – are quite uncanny.

And if nothing else grabs you there's the music – you haven't heard it like this in a long time, if ever. We live in an age where most rappers are smooth and polished, more interested in Gucci loafers and marrying reality stars than expressing anything with their music (other than the same tired old love letters to money and bitches).

However repugnant anyone found NWA's lyrics, they were about protest over a class divide, and the concert footage of the group raising the roof of packed auditoria with the speakers shaking around you will remind you how the early gangster rap movement was a roar of enraged modern poetry. However biased the movie, it at least reminds us about the power of art to give a voice to the repressed.

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