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Review: 'Straight Outta Compton' ably chronicles N.W.A.'s intriguing rise

Straight Outta Compton follows the rise of the gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., from left: Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre.
Universal Pictures
Published Aug. 13, 2015

Right about now would be a good time for a film to delve into the fraught relationship between urban cops and young black men in America, and the outrage that's tearing this country apart.

Straight Outta Compton, however, is not that film.

For a while, you think it might be, as gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. coalesce around a musical dream in the streets of Compton, Calif., where white cops roll down the streets and hover in the shadows like vampires, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. This is the world that spawned N.W.A. anthems like F--- tha Police, a controversial classic.

Then the film takes N.W.A., well, straight outta Compton and straight into the music business. And oh, boy, that's where they really find trouble.

In that sense, this inside story of "the world's most dangerous group" follows much the same Behind the Music format as countless biopics before it — the early struggles, the lightning-fast rise to the top, the pressures of fame, and, finally, the fall.

But Straight Outta Compton, executive produced by St. Petersburg native Will Packer, pulls the ride off well, thanks to a relentlessly head-bobbing soundtrack and the fascinating worlds laid out by director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), a music video veteran who's been working with members of N.W.A. since the early '90s and who probably saw a lot of this firsthand.

The film begins in Compton, 1986, with DJ and aspiring producer Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins) and his lyricist pal O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Cube's real-life son) working angles to get their feet in any door that'll lead them out of South Central. They convince crack dealer Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) to invest in the group, bring along friends DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), team up with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, nebbish as always with a dose of narcissism) and voila: N----z Wit Attitude.

Nothing against Ren and Yella, but this film, like N.W.A.'s legacy, belongs to the other three members. E is the group's street-savvy figurehead, founder of the label Ruthless Records and its breakout star thanks to the Ice Cube-penned hit Boyz-n-the-Hood. Dre is the musical genius, a self-taught crate-digger responsible for the group's heavily funky beats and "reality rap" vision.

Cube is the group's secret weapon, a lyrical prodigy who becomes N.W.A.'s righteous, incorruptible poet, the one whose pen they all fear. (Nowhere is this clearer than a later scene in which Cube, having split from the group over a contract dispute, lays hilarious waste to N.W.A. with the devastating diss track No Vaseline. The moment they hear it, the group knows Cube got 'em.)

Any biopic lives and dies with its stars, and the best here is Jackson Jr., who displays an uncanny mastery of his father's snarl and glare, from his Jheri-curled, whisper-'stached teenage days to his polished life as an actor and family man. Hawkins plays Dre more even-keeled and entrepreneurial, but is given some of the film's most poignant and affecting moments.

More interesting than the hows and whys of N.W.A.'s controversial rise and fall in the industry are the inside snapshots of the industry itself, from grimy Compton clubs to electrifying arena concerts to hotel orgies to studio sessions that illuminate Dr. Dre's creative process.

Along the way are a host of cameos from tangential N.W.A. players. Newcomer Snoop Doggy Dogg (Keith Stanfield) breezes in as a spacey savant who riffs the classic Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang off the top of his head. Even more fun/terrifying is R. Marcos Taylor's wild-eyed, maniacal portrayal of predatory impresario Suge Knight.

With Dre and Cube's superstardom on lock by 1993, the film's drawn-out third act leans heaviest on Eazy-E, whose fall is the most severe, tragic and human. The movie suggests N.W.A. was nearing a mid-'90s reunion, though it was never to be.

Maybe that's a good thing. Once they left Compton, did N.W.A. even have another F--- tha Police in them? That disconnect from their roots is wryly illustrated as members watch coverage of the Rodney King beating from their individual mansions, affected by the riots but so far removed from urban L.A. that they couldn't write another "reality rap" if they tried.

That may be why Straight Outta Compton doesn't linger on the issue of inner-city unrest. N.W.A. started out as angry young men shouting at the cops, but the film opens up their Raider jackets to reveal the humans beneath. Perhaps that story's been told before. But it never sounded quite like this.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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