While not as visceral as Training Day or Boyz n the Hood, Straight Outta Compton will no doubt resonate with its target audience more. Though set in the late 80s/early 90s, its frequent depictions of senseless and brutal police violence could have been just as easily snatched from today’s headlines.

It’s a gritty, powerful film, and it doesn’t pull any punches in revealing the origins of rappers NWA. Beginning with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) barely escaping a raided crack house, “Straight Outta Compton” introduces us to each of the five men who will eventually come together to form perhaps the most influential (and notorious) rap group in history.

Joining E is aspiring DJ Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.)– the poet of the bunch, scrawling rhymes in his spare time as her rides the bus to and from school. Along the way, they also join forces with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). After starting small in local clubs in Los Angeles, NWA keeps working at the grass-roots level until they finally land on top.

The man who brought it all together (before also being the lightning rod that tore them all apart) is manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who heard something special in Eazy-E’s debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood”. Heller hitches his wagon to the five guys from South Central and opens plenty of doors for them (including the biggest one– a contract with Priority Records), but nothing comes without a price.

Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) hits the ground running and keeps pushing the pace throughout Straight Outta Compton. From the violent streets of the guys’ impoverished neighborhoods to sold out stages in Detroit and Philadelphia to the group’s acrimonious split-up, the movie takes us on a ride that is both energizing and provocative. It never shies away from telling us exactly how it was for Dre, Cube, and E as they struggled against any number of obstacles– including public (and law enforcement) backlash, racism, and shady deals. And as much as Straight Outta Compton provides plenty of fascinating insight, it does even more to highlight the music and its impact on society.

The movie’s only downfall comes in the fact that the story could have easily been spread across 10 hours. So the fact that screenwriter Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) and novice Jonathan Berman had to cram it all into two-and-a-half, makes for a story that occasionally feels like it has too many balls in the air at any given time. The performances, particularly by Mitchell and also by Jackson as Cube (portraying his own father), boost Compton‘s value, however.

It’s a resonant, relevant, and remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall (and almost rise again) of one of the all-time great groups.

4/5 stars