Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Straight Outta Compton is a full-on biopic of N.W.A., the world's most dangerous group. Rather than visit one of history's other rap biopics - because they're pretty much all dreadful - let's take a peek at something of a freer, more impressionistic pseudobiopic of its subject and lead actor.

History is littered with movies in which popular music stars attempt to show off their acting chops, often playing a variation on themselves, and the results are disastrous. The list of films that are A) impressive as cinema, and B) demonstrate that their stars have anything resembling screen presence or acting talent is a brief one: 1964's A Hard Day's Night, with Richard Lester directing the Beatles to heights that defy the project's obvious "let's cash in on the teenybopper!" impulses.

That said, A Hard Day's Night is so fucking good that it has encouraged generations of filmmakers and pop stars to try again, almost always to no damn good effect at all. So this much credit must absolutely go to 2002's 8 Mile, starring Marshall "Eminem" Mathers as an impressionistic gloss on himself in the mid-'90s: it's a pretty strong movie. Director Curtis Hanson leads a terrific below-the-line team including the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, editors Craig Kitson and Jay Rabinowitz, and costume designer Mark Bridges, in the creation of a striking vision of urban decrepitude embracing and nurturing its inhabitants. Meanwhile, the director fills out the margins with wonderful performances by Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Michael Shannon, and Anthony Mackie in a virtually nonexistent role that still benefits enormously from his extraordinary ability to control the camera with his scowling face.

So that handles A), though this is not a Lester-esque explosion of inventive style (on the contrary, the film subscribes to a stock-issue "let's film urban poverty" aesthetic, it just happens to execute that aesthetic tremendously well). It does not, however, do well by B). Eminem doesn't embarrass himself in the way that Britney Spears did in the repellent Crossroads earlier in 2002, or Mariah Carey did in the insipid Glitter the year prior. He's perfectly unexceptional, with a fairly limited palette of facial expressions that leave the impression that his character doesn't feel feelings; he looks uncannily like Elijah Wood much of the time, and that's all it took me to long helplessly for a re-casting in which Eminem could be taken out of the movie that only exists because he is in it (also, "how much better this would be with Elijah Wood in the lead role!" is a pretty awful place to be in).

Eminem's alter ego in the script written by Scott Silver is Jimmy Smith Jr, an automobile factory worker in Detroit whose life is in that singular state of perpetual collapse that only true poverty can create. As the film begins, he has just moved back in with his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger), whom he resentfully tolerates, his kid sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield) who is unique among living human beings in having the ability to make him feel joy and love, and his mom's abusive wretch of a boyfriend, Greg (Shannon). When he's not slacking off at his job or skulking around his house with undisguised disgust, he pursues his great calling, freestyle rap; he has immense talent but no confidence at all, and at a rap battle emceed by his best friend Future (Phifer), performing as "B-Rabbit", he chokes completely, humiliating himself in front of virtually everyone whose opinion he cares about, and earning the disdain of Papa Doc (Mackie), who lambastes Jimmy as nothing but white trash trying ineffectually to muscle into the African-American territory of rap.

The film is not, in truth, very plot-heavy; there's a bit of back and forth involving Jimmy and Papa Doc's rap gang, the Leaders of the Free World (I'm looking for some kind of irony with Papa Doc's name, and I can't figure out if it's actually there), and the danger in which it puts Jimmy and his friends; there's a B-plot in which Jimmy's relationship to a young woman he meets accidentally one day, Alex (Murphy), helps to drive him to stop being such a resentful lump and take some ownership of his actions. But this is mostly a hang-out movie, of a particularly bleak stripe: the bulk of the film is scenes of Jimmy simply inhabiting his world and bumping against the people in it, with his character arc slowly coalescing as we observe the minute shifts in his behavior from moment to moment, rather than big dramatic shifts that come as the result of melodramatic incidents. The film doesn't even end melodramatically: the film eschews the rags-to-riches arc of Eminem's own life in favor of ending with the triumph of Jimmy being ready to seriously grapple with his life and nascent music career, rather than having actually become a success anywhere but in the tiny world he has always inhabited.

It's a refreshing way to build a story that is ghoulishly overfamiliar in nearly all its particulars, and it leaves 8 Mile feeling like it has earned its emotional claims on the audience, rather than just blindly insisting that we should be moved because of the poor. Parts of it are undernourished, beyond a doubt: the most troubling is the film's decision to steadfastly not think about race beyond Papa Doc's mockery of Jimmy for his whiteness (though it's not the most absurd "let's pretend that nobody is having conversations about Eminem's place in politics and culture" moment: that would be when he stops the film cold to explain why it's not okay to make fun of people for being gay), and while Murphy is utterly incandescent in the role of Alex, bringing a fire to the cold grey movie that emphasises better than anything else just what the absolute, burning desire to get the hell out of there looks like, there's no denying that the romantic subplot is the one that the film has by far the least desire to do anything with.

The biggest case of undernourishment, though, is Jimmy himself, owing mostly to Eminem's fine but basic performance, and the central relationship with his loved, hated mother, owing to Basinger's. The common complaint against her when the film was brand new was that she was too beautiful for the role of a broke drunk, and that's true; but it's also true of Murphy, and she didn't have a problem overcoming it. Basinger, though, simply retrenches to shticky performances of grinding poverty, with director Hanson failing to draw out the same once-in-a-lifetime brilliance that made her so shockingly potent in their previous collaboration, L.A. Confidential. "Shit. We're be-ing evicted. God damn it" she intones at one moment of crisis, and the effect is not "woman who is too far gone into the bottle to have human responses", which might have saved it; it's "didn't think through the right emotional tone for this most important scene". Her onscreen son, meanwhile, has a confrontation with his possibly-pregnant ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning), and he stares and speaks at her like a Scandinavian tourist dropped into the heart of Detroit with only a tourist's dictionary to get by, so perhaps wildly unacceptable line readings are genetic within the film or something.

There's an absolute upper limit to how good the film can be when its two most important roles are filled by its two most disappointing actors, but 8 Mile comes remarkably close to that ceiling. Its depiction of urban squalor is right on-point without being so realistically hellish that it no longer makes sense to locate an unresolved Horatio Alger fable there; Prieto shoots it with moody, almost horror movie shafts of light and shadow that make it all look interesting without glamorising it, and the frequently impressionistic editing - which starts right from the bravura opening sequence, which muddies the distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music as Jimmy practices his rapping, while the editors keep flashing from point to point around him - keeps our attention on the physical environment as an object and a force, not just the backdrop for the characters.

The film's depiction of urban Michigan is stellar, visually; it could, of course, be a bit more rigorous sociologically, but given what the film easily could have been, I am inclined to be excited for any little victories. Ultimately, the takeaway is that all this is a touch too easy and a touch shallow, which is far, far better than I'd have ever expected from it: a narcissistic autobiography of a non-actor is one of the most surefire no-win situations in cinema, and that Hanson, his crew, and most of his cast were able to haul this into something that's at least somwhat admirable is a huge triumph.