Aldis Hodge as MC Ren in "Straight Outta Compton"

Aldis Hodge as MC Ren in "Straight Outta Compton"

Jaimie Trueblood

Of all the improbable fates that awaited N.W.A., from Dr. Dre's status as a headphone tycoon to Ice Cube's ascension as a family movie mogul, this one might be the most remarkable.

The original shock troops of gangsta rap now have their own conventional rock biopic in Straight Outta Compton, a highly entertaining if overlong chronicle that hits all the beats familiar to the genre. It doesn't get much more mainstream than that.

Here we see the five core members as young men dealing with the random police harassment and street violence of 1980s Los Angeles. We track the three most visionary, Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., son of the real Cube), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) as they carve out their place in hip-hop history. Their squabbles, mostly over money, spring to life. They rise from nondescript houses on dangerous streets to palatial mansions and bacchanalian pool parties. They don't stray too far from the madding crowd.

Along the way we're treated to a few surprises sprinkled in with the predictable arc. First and foremost, Straight Outta Compton can be sidesplittingly funny, and not in an unintentional way. Director F. Gary Gray and a team of five writers show an alert ear for black vernacular, especially the ways in which young men joke around with each other and laugh to keep from crying (though they do some of that as well). The film is well-attuned to the surreal, tragicomic nature of banding together in the face of everyday persecution.

Straight Outta Big D: How we do the N.W.A. meme in North Texas

Straight Outta Compton is strongest in its first half, which shows us the future stars as hungry underdogs dealing with the consequences of being the wrong color in the eyes of law enforcement (a theme with clear resonance in today's headlines). Young black men in the age of chief Daryl Gates' LAPD could expect a violent and humiliating routine. Hands behind your head. Prepare to get slammed face first into the hood of the nearest car. Didn't do anything wrong? Shut up. No drugs on you? Have a nice day.

In the movie, the members of N.W.A. receive such treatment outside the Torrance studio where they're recording their first album. The experience inspires Cube to pen the group's incendiary calling card, "[Expletive] the Police." Later we see them individually watching the Rodney King coverage on TV and driving through the riots that followed the not-guilty verdict.

Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E in "Straight Outta Compton."

Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E in "Straight Outta Compton."

Universal Pictures

Straight Outta Compton captures the milieu of N.W.A.'s time and place in vivid detail. The cast is uniformly excellent; Jackson's ability to capture his dad's mannerisms, especially the charismatic scowl, is uncanny.

The thorny relationship between the group and its manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), gets full treatment, as does the rise of Death Row Records kingpin Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), an N.W.A. member from Dallas, is a featured character.

Plot lines aplenty populate Straight Outta Compton, and at about the halfway point they start to pile up. In this sense, the movie is plagued by the pitfalls of most rise-fall-rise-again music biopics. There's a reluctance to trim the fat here, which will happen when two of the principal subjects, Cube and Dre, are also producers.

Straight Outta Compton manages to keep its sharp teeth despite its adherence to form. The movie doesn't neuter N.W.A.'s story so much as mold it to a familiar model. If you were listening back in the day, you couldn't have seen that coming.

Straight Outta Compton (B+)

Directed by F. Gary Gray. R (language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use). 127 mins. In wide release.

What's Happening on GuideLive