Vibrant, rambunctious, and as lopsided as a cake taken out of the oven too soon, Straight Outta Compton lays out the epic story of N.W.A, the groundbreaking rap group that pioneered the incendiary sound of an era and birthed the solo careers of hip-hop giants Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. And also others, for sure, but Dre and Cube deserve first mention in this context, because they're not just two of the movie's subjects, they're two of its producers. They helped shepherd it into existence and into the hands of director F. Gary Gray (who's worked with both previously, in Set It Off and Friday) and writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff.
Music biopics usually wait until their subjects are deceased before turning their lives into the stuff of movies, but Straight Outta Compton, which starts in 1986 and continues through to 1995, forges boldly ahead with events that still come across as recent and raw. Most of its subjects are still around (and a few are complaining). The movie feels very much like the story of N.W.A as enabled by Dre and Cube, who got the prerogative of shaping what kind of tale gets told.
This happens with every true story turned scripted movie, but history rarely feels as messily corralled as it does in the latter half of this one, which focuses on feuds and fights more than making hit records. The rise and fall of the group doesn't fit easily into the standard music movie mold, but Straight Outta Compton tries to stuff its complicated, triumphant-tragic elements into one anyway, shuffling away or diminishing some inconvenient parts of its main characters' pasts and designating a few villains.
But before all that, when Straight Outta Compton and its young, not-yet-famous men are just getting started, it's about as thrilling as movies like this get. It's electric — part getting-the-team-together, part let's-put-on-a-show, except the players are baby versions of iconic hip-hop artists, scrapping together revolutionary tracks using lyrics they wrote on the school bus and trying them out during a DJ gig for which they were instructed to play nice and get people thinking of "pussy, not pistols."
The cast is made up of many newcomers apparently chosen more for their resemblances to their famous counterparts than their existing work, but they acquit themselves just fine either way. Jason Mitchell is Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins is Dr. Dre, Neil Brown Jr. is DJ Yella, Leverage's Aldis Hodge is MC Ren, and Ice Cube is played by his spitting-image son O'Shea Jackson Jr., a standout in his first acting role. They're still kids at the start, really, except for Eazy-E, who opens the movie with a tense drug deal gone wrong that feels spliced in from one of Gray's action flicks: A police battering ram comes through the door and Eazy flees across a neighboring rooftop.
Eazy-E is, for better and worse, set up as Straight Outta Compton's tragic hero, putting up drug money to get N.W.A and Ruthless Records going, causing the group's breakup due to his loyalty to manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and dying of AIDS at the terribly young age of 31. The movie starts and ends with him, and he's its primary source of conflict, even if Jerry bears the actual blame. (Heller, who's written his own extravagant take on the era, starts off portrayed with some nuance, but is gradually whittled down into an evil record exec cliché, the big bad until Suge Knight, played by a glowering R. Marcos Taylor, shows up halfway through.)
Eazy is allowed to be flawed in ways Cube and Dre aren't as they grow and recede into their respective successes — he brings the authenticity, if not the natural musical talent, as evidenced by the movie's best scene, when he takes to the studio to record "Boyz-n-the-Hood." It wasn't the plan. Ice Cube's lyrics get rejected by the group initially slated to record, and Dr. Dre coaxes Eazy-E into the booth while that backing track plays, getting him to let loose with the familiar line, "Cruisin down the street in my six-fo'." The rhythmlessness with which he first does it is all the funnier for how little it matches seared-in memories of the song, and the way he's coached into his famous delivery is a goosebump moment.
There are actually goosebump moments whenever Straight Outta Compton is in the studio. Or onstage — cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator, throws his agile camera onstage and down in the crowd looking up, and toggles between the two to give the experience of watching such explosive performers and being them. It captures the feeling of N.W.A just blowing the roof off a joint, during their first gig at Skateland U.S.A. and into their national tour, living large on the road and dealing with threatening letters from the FBI in response to "Fuck tha Police."
The anger and outrage of that song and so much of N.W.A's output gets connected directly to the experiences its characters endure growing up and living as black men during the height of the "war on drugs" — from the opening raid forward, any scene involving the police looks like a scene from exactly that, a warzone. The shot, seen more than once, of Jackson or Hawkins' incensed faces put against the hood of a car or the sidewalk while being patted down or cuffed for doing nothing places the movie in a continuum of police violence through today, long before the film's chronology arrives at Rodney King. When Ice Cube spits, "Yo Dre, I got something to say," onstage in Detroit in the face of cops who've forbidden the song into which he's about to launch, it's righteous, even as we know retaliation is coming.
The movie loses most of its momentum after Ice Cube breaks off from the group and everyone starts turning their anger against each other, though it still has moments — like the scene in which the targets of Cube's 1991 diss track "No Vaseline" listen in a Los Angeles mansion while he systematically destroys them. But Straight Outta Compton basically spends its second half in search of an ending, sketching out the decline of Ruthless and the formation of Death Row Records and trotting out the equivalent of cameos of other rappers — Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg and Marcc Rose as Tupac. Women throughout the movie are decoratively interchangeable, or they're scolds until the men meet the ones they're going to marry. Dre's history of violence against women isn't hinted at, and his relationship with fellow recording artist Michel'le, who's been open in alleging abuse, is largely elided. Cube dismisses accusations of anti-Semitism with one brief scene. By the final reconciliation, which has Eazy-E waiting for his old compatriots in the studio like a kid holding out for his estranged dad to finally come over for a game of catch, the movie's manipulations feel unignorable.
We look for self-mythologizing in movie biographies. Even in warts-and-all portraits, we want testaments to greatness, proof of why someone merits their own movie. There's no question N.W.A deserves big-screen treatment, and until Straight Outta Compton tilts into the self-serving — over the credits, we're even reminded of how many billion dollars Apple paid for Beats by Dre — it's the best kind of sensational. The hip-hop biopic is still so young and due to grow (where's that Tupac movie?) and come into its own, and Straight Outta Compton shows both how good this subgenre can be and the benefits of distance.