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‘Straight Outta Compton’: Enthralling biopic puts N.W.A. in the tension of the times

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, young black men could get stopped and frisked and handcuffed by police just for being young black men. Even when officers were caught on video abusing their power, they weren’t necessarily brought to justice. In cities where tensions were particularly high, city blocks would burn and conflicts would escalate to riot-levels.

How far we haven’t come.

In some ways “Straight Outta Compton” is a conventional biopic of an iconic musical force — not so different from “Ray” or “Walk the Line” or “What’s Love Got To Do With It” or “Jersey Boys” or “Get On Up.”

The early days of dreaming big. The creative sessions deep into the night. The first big break. The electric live performances. The multiple explosions of success and fame and money and sex and drugs. The in-fighting and the breakups and the tragedies.

All of that is told to great effect in F. Gary Gray’s enthralling, energized, 147-minute tribute to N.W.A. — but this is also something of a docudrama about the racial tinderbox that was Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict; the ugly, violent feuds between warring rap labels; and N.W.A.’s role as rhyming journalists chronicling the times.

There was a reason some called it “reality rap.”

When first you see the actor playing the high school student who will become the hip-hop artist known as Ice Cube, the facial resemblance is so startling, the familiar expressions so dead solid perfect, the voice such a perfect match, you might wonder if some sort of CGI magic has allowed the 46-year-old Cube to play the 18-year-old version of himself.

It’s actually Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing Cube, and what a remarkable performance. The first time Cube takes the mic and gives voice to his gritty poetry, it feels as authentic as a documentary. And though the actors playing N.W.A. members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) don’t have the built-in DNA advantage, they all deliver strong, memorable work that transcends mere imitation.

(The casting in “Straight Outta Compton” is universally pitch perfect, including brief cameos by LaKeith Stanfield as Snoop and Marcc Rose as Tupac that are fantastically spot on.)

As played by Jason Mitchell in a charismatic, ultimately heartbreaking performance, Eazy-E is a charmer, despite his roots as a drug dealer and his casual, careless womanizing. (In a callback to “Friday,” which was directed by Gray and starred Cube, there’s a “Bye Felicia” joke that makes light of N.W.A.’s misogynistic ways. The film also makes no mention of Dr. Dre’s well-chronicled violence against women. It’s not as if “Straight Outta Compton” makes role-model heroes out of the primary members of the group, but it DOES gloss over some damn important negatives.)

It’s Eazy-E who hooks up the group with a hustling manager named Jerry Heller, played by the invaluable Paul Giamatti. (Just a couple of months ago, we saw Giamatti as Brian Wilson’s infamous manager/guru Dr. Eugene Landy in “Love & Mercy,” and let’s just say neither portrayal approaches anything favorable toward the real-life subjects.) Eventually Heller’s favoritism of Eazy-E leads to Ice Cube leaving the group. A nasty but entertaining war of hip-hop words ensues between the remaining members of N.W.A. and the solo Cube. The hulking, intimidating, casually violent Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor in a chillingly effective performance) teams up with Dre to form Death Row Records, and that’s effectively the end of N.W.A.

As was the case with aforementioned “Love & Mercy,” this is a film that has a real feel for the creative process in the studio. The live performance scenes rock — particularly the depiction of a tense show in Detroit where the group is warned in advance not to perform “F— Tha Police,” thereby GUARANTEEING the group is going to perform “F— Tha Police.”

In the last hour, “Straight Outta Compton” stalls just a bit, as we veer from the soap opera melodrama involving various group members to the East Coast/West Coast feud to reminders of hip-hop’s impact on the culture. Gray has an epic story to tell, one that could have easily filled five or six hours on premium cable. Still, this is one of the better musical biopics of the last 20 years.

★★★1⁄2

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by F. Gary Gray and written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. Running time: 147 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.