Like its subjects, the iconic late rap conglomerate N.W.A., F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” starts out strong, peaks quickly, and then gets tangled in complications and compromise and falls apart.
The first scene is the best, and has little to do with music other than the driving hip-hop on the soundtrack and Gray’s rhythmic cuts and swooping camera. Diminutive dope dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) nervously confronts a room full of armed men and women who owe him money. A SWAT team interrupts the standoff, and Eazy-E barely escapes.
Time for a change in careers.
Eazy-E sees a future in the assaultive rap music emerging from his tough Compton, Calif., neighborhood and wants to invest his ill-gotten gains in the music. He calls in local talent to start a record label: the idealistic Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Dre’s droll pal DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and a 16-year-old fireplug with a knack for lyrics, Ice Cube (Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Finally, to open the doors of the white-run music industry, Eazy-E enlists veteran manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
They reach a much wider audience than they anticipate with their first album, “Straight Outta Compton,’’ released in 1988. They also meet a lot of hostility — the protest song “[Expletive] tha Police” proves especially controversial — with critics ranging from Tipper Gore to the FBI.
That political element of the music, the defiance that inspires pride and rage in the marginalized and ignites fear in those in power, figures only periodically in the film. Nor does the band’s political incorrectness get much play. Indeed, misogyny is depicted without commentary; every other scene is like an orgy outtake from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Instead Gray engages with the sordid complications of money and contract disputes, some resolved violently. He also engages in the kind of showbiz schmaltz that was old in “A Star Is Born.” He forgets that this isn’t music meant to bring tears, unless they are tears of rage.