Straight Outta Compton’ is an impassioned but formulaic musical biopic

Cops hassle the future members of N.W.A.
Mike D'Angelo

Three stars

Straight Outta Compton O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Studio movies require years of development, so the makers of Straight Outta Compton, which tells the story of the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A., couldn’t possibly have known how timely the film would feel upon its release. America has reached peak “F*ck Tha Police” sentiment over the last year or so, which makes it spine-tinglingly cathartic to watch Ice Cube (played as a young man by his dead-ringer son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) angrily spit lines like “They have the authority to kill a minority.” That sense of prescient urgency lends weight to what is otherwise a fairly standard-issue musical biopic—which is to say, a film that, despite its emphasis on rhythm, sometimes has difficulty finding a rhythm of its own over the course of its slightly bloated two and a half hours.

Opening in 1986, Straight Outta Compton is at its best during the “rise” section of its trajectory, chronicling the foundation of N.W.A. by Ice Cube, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) and a drug dealer turned rapper named Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell, in an electrifying performance). Because this is an authorized biopic—the real Dre and Cube are credited as producers—there’s a “print the legend” implausibility to much of what’s shown; it’s unlikely, for example, that “F*ck Tha Police” was written in the immediate aftermath of a humiliating encounter between the group and the LAPD. Still, it plays well, and the film starts to feel more exacting in its middle stretch, which is largely a series of contract disputes in which the gang discovers that they’ve been royally screwed over by their manager (Paul Giamatti).

After N.W.A. acrimoniously splits up in 1991, Straight Outta Compton—which still has nearly an hour to go—starts to lose focus. While director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off, The Italian Job) keeps the energy level high, and there’s a degree of rubbernecking pleasure in watching the former friends publicly attack each other, the film’s final third feels less like a culmination than like a very protracted epilogue. Eazy-E’s death from AIDS in 1995 gets clumsily foreshadowed with Significant Coughing (always a harbinger of doom in the movies), and producer Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) takes on such prominence that it starts to feel as if he might hijack the movie. In real life, N.W.A. burned furiously for a short time. This biopic accurately reproduces the flame, but then spends too much time rooting through the ashes.

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