As one whose job it is to think too much about movies, I gotta admit that I was a little wary of "Straight Outta Compton," the new film about pioneering West Coast rappers N.W.A. There's rarely any variation in the plot trajectory of a musical biopic -- adversity, opportunity, prosperity, conflict, redemption -- and the trailers did nothing to make it look as though "Straight Outta Compton" would be the one to reinvent a predictable wheel. Add to that the fact that the film is produced by its occasionally controversial subjects, which is tantamount to commissioning a painting of yourself: You're probably gonna look real good, with nary a wrinkle in sight. And though the portrayals do flirt at times with relative hagiography, "Straight Outta Compton" is, in actuality, as vital, bracing, and relevant as the essential 1988 recording for which it's named.
The theater lights have barely dimmed before Eric Wright, a k a Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), gets a gun in his face during a dope deal that's headed south when the LAPD and its battering ram show up. It's 1986 in Compton, California, and Andre Young, a k a Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), is a club DJ barely supporting his young family, while O'Shea Jackson, a k a Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), is still in high school, scribbling lyrics during his spare time. One night everyone converges on the club, including MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and Dre approaches Eazy about investing some of his hard-earned drug money into studio time and a record label for the aspiring producer. And the rest, as they say, is history ...
... Except when it isn't. It's worth remembering that "Straight Outta Compton" isn't a documentary, so while you distinctly recall a half-dozen men on the album cover, only five get any real time in the sun here. (Later for you, Arabian Prince!) N.W.A's unofficial sixth man in this film is fast-talking manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, bringing depth and velour track suits to a mildly villainous role), who befriends Eazy and guides him through the perils of the record industry, increasingly to the exclusion of the rest of N.W.A. But Dre, Cube, Ren, and Yella are too busy crafting what they call "reality rap," angry anthems that reflect the racism and harassment they and their peers (and now their descendants, sadly) encounter on a daily basis, most notably at the hands of those who have otherwise pledged to protect and serve.
And as the legendary track "Fuck Tha Police" gains national attention, N.W.A finds itself in the proverbial crosshairs of law enforcement agencies, demonstrated by an exhilarating set piece in which N.W.A defies the orders of Detroit's finest by performing the song in a 1989 gig at the Joe Louis Arena. It's not long after Detroit that financial beef drives a wedge between the suspicious Cube and the slippery Heller, signaling the beginning of the end as N.W.A and the gone-solo Cube spit venomously clever dis rhymes at each other, Dre forms Death Row Records with noted sociopath Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, in a monstrous turn), and Eazy tries to keep the gravy train on track before succumbing to complications from AIDS in 1995.
"Straight Outta Compton" lags a bit whenever anyone stops to discuss dull business stuff, but that's mostly because it pales in comparison to the first part of the film -- basically an origin story assembling the Avengers of Crenshaw Boulevard -- which is so tight that it makes the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time zip by. The film pretty much glosses over the more troubling aspects of N.W.A's legacy -- the charges of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and famously violent misogyny -- its apparent agenda is to ensure that the late Eazy-E takes his rightful place in rap history alongside Dre and Cube.
Director F. Gary Gray (he and Cube made 1995's sleeper hit "Friday" together; bye, Felicia!) gets a fantastically nuanced -- and often hilarious -- performance out of the previously unknown Jason Mitchell, anchoring the film as the smart, ambitious, but ultimately tragic Eazy. And though Corey Hawkins falls short of Dre's magnetism, O'Shea Jackson Jr. absolutely nails his father's cadence, delivery, and expressions, most notably that sarcastic sneer typically rippling across Cube's face. Simply put, you don't need to be an N.W.A fan to appreciate this gritty, inspiring rags-to-riches tale. But who doesn't dig on N.W.A?