“All Eyez on Me” is a too-tidy/too-pat musical biopic that sheds light on the messy, provocative and watershed life that was Tupac Shakur, rapper, rebel and would-be revolutionary.
Overlong, more solid than inspiring, it makes a good go of illustrating just how much fame, music and controversy the man squeezed into 25 short years. It demands a lot of screen newcomer Demetrius Shipp, Jr., asking that he recreate the charisma of this rap and acting icon, too much. The screenwriters and director are often hellbent on presenting Tupac’s story the way he himself would have told it.
But whatever shortcomings it has, it makes a suitable companion piece to the George Tillman’s superior Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious,” and even shares Biggies — the same actor plays that other late rapper in both films.
If there’s one takeaway that this film makes even plainer than the definitive documentary on the subject, “Biggie and Tupac, it is this — Tupac Shakur was no accident.
Named for an 18th century Peruvian revolutionary, raised by a fierce, radical Black Panther mother (Danai Gurira, superb) who carried him almost to term while in prison awaiting trial, educated to be proud, to make a difference and to embrace the arts, Shakur considered himself “a reporter,” someone channeling what he saw on the mean streets of New York, Baltimore and Oakland into lyrics.
He saw violence, drug dealers and pimps, witnessed his mother standing up to FBI harassment (stepdad was a bank-robber for “The Movement”) and the murder of a neighbor in Oakland. What he absorbed, along with the need to lead, to “drop some knowledge” into songs about police misconduct, racism murder, child abuse and the like, was the need to burn the candle at both ends.
“Tomorrow ain’t promised to NO man.”
Having a background in theater — committing Shakespeare to memory (He played Hamlet in Baltimore’s High School for the Performing Arts), studying dance, the guy was prepared for stardom as if he was born to it.
The limp comedy “Next Day Air” wasn’t great prep for director Benny Boom, but he and three credited screenwriters take us through the arc of Tupac’s life and career — going to school with lifelong friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, perfect), getting his first break as a roadie, rapper and dancer with Digital Underground, getting a bigger break as an actor by pretty much stealing “Juice.”
We see a friendship (Jamal Woolard reprises his Biggie Smalls) sour and go terribly wrong.
And we watch a proud young man harassed by cops, baited by rivals and jealous fans wanting to beat up the rap star (Shipp is a bit too tall to play Tupac.), and bit by bit, falling into a life that imitates his art. He becomes as hard as his music — constant run-ins with the law, a singer who comes to believe he’s earned that “Thug Life” tattoo (actually an acronym) that he wears, along with guns and jewelry.
The story is framed within a prison interview with Shakur, with a TV journalist (Hill Harper) occasionally challenging the guy to justify his actions, his pose and his life.
Music videos are recreated, the ill-fated meetings with the wrong sorts of people — including Death Row music mogul Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, carrying some of the menace, charm and bulk of the real Suge) and assorting falling outs with friends and proteges (like Snoop Dogg, whose voice is dubbed for actor Jarrett Ellis) is detailed.
And the controversies are recalled, from Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous criticism, to the shoot-outs and the crime that landed him in prison in the first place.
Truthfully, the only times “All Eyez on Me” raises the hair on the back of your neck are in the odd moment on stage, rapping, and in the final act — closed circuit video of Tupac’s last hours, intercut with the revelations and conversations behind the scenes that made fans wonder, then and now, just who was behind his murder.
But Boom has crafted a thorough overview, and Shipp captures some of the stage presence, bits of the charisma and much of the belligerence of this complicated young man with the 4,000 page FBI file. That “fact,” like much of what we see, is subject to at least some debate, and the film is fiercely in Tupac’s corner, telling the story from his point of view — victim, rebel, genius and egomaniac — the way his fans would have it.
It might remain for a future filmmaker to present this subject with all the edge, contradictions (Mama’s boy misogynist, etc.) that others have suggested.
Still, kudos to all involved for showing just enough of the flaws — he witnesses Suge Knight’s violence against those who cross him, and doesn’t raise a finger or his voice — to make this portrait of a man placed on a hip hop pedestal more human, and just as compelling as the pose he struck in life and in death.
MPAA Rating: R for language and drug use throughout, violence, some nudity and sexuality