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‘Straight Outta Compton’ gets rap right — partly

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Corey Hawkins portrays Dr. Dre in “Straight Outta Compton.” (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures/TNS)

Artists that burn brightly for a short time deserve similarly styled biopics, as “Sid & Nancy” did for the Sex Pistols and “Control” for Joy Division.

The new “Straight Outta Compton,” which tells the N.W.A. story, is partly there. As the rap group finds its footing, plays its first shows and makes its first records, the movie burns with an irresistible, primal energy.

Yet director F. Gary Gray doesn’t seem to know how or where to stop the movie.

Gray was there, in the mid-1990s, making music videos for Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and his feature directing debut with Cube’s “Friday” (1995). So it’s possible he felt obligated to give equal weight to all the players, and follow their individual story arcs to the last possible extreme.

In Compton, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real-life son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) all deal with poverty, police harassment, drugs and violence.

They try their hand at music, and before long, Dre’s beats, Cube’s lyrics and E’s voice form the iconic song “Boyz-N-The-Hood.” It draws the attention of gone-to-seed manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who promises to take care of the boys.

Fame comes quickly on the strength of the 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” and the song “F–k tha Police,” which raises the hackles of the FBI and causes a riot at a Detroit show. It’s an electric scene that makes you realize just how few times in history music has been truly dangerous, and shaken the world.

But then “Straight Outta Compton” moves into standard biopic territory. The group members bicker over contracts and money, drink too much, use too many drugs, and sleep with too many women. Slightly wartier incidents from life are glossed over.

The movie splits off into Cube’s successful solo career, Dre’s association with Death Row records and the brutish Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and Eazy-E’s struggling record label and illness.

Even as it ends, it feels as if there’s more to tell. Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are briefly represented; if the movie went on longer, Eminem would have turned up, too. It could have been a mini-series.

For better and worse, “Straight Outta Compton” feels like a fan-made film, frequently exciting and pleasing. But, in the spirit of the album of the same name, it could have been incendiary and extraordinary.

REVIEW
Straight Outta Compton
Three stars
Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Written by Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 27 minutes

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