'All Eyez on Me'
Tupac Shakur was one of the most fascinating and influential artists of the early 1990s. He lived a life so grandiose and insane that it always seemed destined for the bio-pic treatment. Unfortunately, Benny Boom’s movie proves how difficult that task was.
There’s enough material here for several films or a TV series, and even with an almost 2.5 hour running time, ‘All Eyez on Me’ feels overstuffed and underwhelming. A tightening of focus was necessary, but it’s easy to admire the film’s ambitions even if it doesn’t quite hang together.
The film kicks off on several timelines. We see Tupac (Demetrius Shipp, Jr.) rising through the ranks of his high school acting classes along with a talented student named Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). At the same time, we see also him in prison being interviewed for an unnamed documentary reflecting on his past. Obviously, the intent is to condense the narrative whenever possible (Wanna skip a few years? How ’bout we cut to that interview?) as well as to hammer home any themes or ideas the filmmakers want to communicate about Tupac. (I think this message about Tupac is unclear, so how ’bout we just make him say it?) We see Tupac’s mother (Danai Gurira) teach him about her past in the Black Panthers and develop a drug habit. We see him move to the West Coast. We see him tour with Digital Underground. We aren’t even out of the first act yet.
The script written by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian doesn’t so much feel like a “greatest hits” telling of the Tupac Shakur story, but an “every hit” telling. Almost all of his most famous songs get playtime or a reference. The same can be said for all of his movie roles as an actor. It’s almost as if the writers were terrified to leave even a single paragraph of Tupac’s Wikipedia page out of the screenplay in fear of inaccuracy or disappointment. As a result, nothing gets the attention it deserves, even though everything is included. Why Jada Pinkett gets three scenes is never explained, beyond the fact that it’s known they were friends. Why we needed to see a scene of ‘Juice’ being shot or discussions over the ‘Above the Rim’ contract remains unclear. It’s info overload in a manner that severely hampers the storytelling.
Despite never having appeared in a film before, Demetrius Shipp, Jr. is an absolutely remarkable find as Tupac. The physical resemblance is eerie and the performer’s ability to capture Tupac’s physicality and voice is just as astonishing. He also delivers an impressive dramatic performance within that extraordinary impersonation. While the script might give him such a flurry of scenes and events to portray that Shipp often doesn’t have the easiest dramatic thread to follow, he always grounds the movie with his performance and it’s easy to get so wrapped up in what he’s doing that you’ll forget the mess of a movie around him.
Unfortunately, barely anyone else on screen gets much of a chance to shine given that everyone tends to bounce off Tupac from the sidelines with little growth or life of their own. Some fare better than others. Danai Gurira does some impressive work with an underwritten role as Tupac’s mother, while Jamal Woolard amusingly revives his role as Biggie from his own underwhelming bio-pic ‘Notorious’. (Foes that make this a shared cinematic universe?) One of the few characters who gets more than an extended cameo is Suge Knight, and Dominic L. Santana casts quite an unsettling presence in that vital role.
After struggling so hard to cram as much of Tupac’s glorious rising star tale into the first 90 minutes or so of the movie, director Boom manages to settle down once the film enters the Death Row Records phase. By focusing on the troubled partnership between Tupac and Suge Knight, ‘All Eyez on Me’ finally has enough dramatic depth to survive beyond a rapid-fire montage of scenes from Tupac’s life. The movie slows down enough to breathe, generates tension, and finds ways to more naturally explore Tupac’s passions and politics. It works well enough to suggest that a far better film could have been made by dialing in on this specific era rather than trying to include every other famous event in Tupac’s life.
Sadly, that’s not the movie that we got in ‘All Eyez on Me’. While it’s easy to understand how the filmmakers were so enamored with Tupac to want to include so many elements of his life, it’s a shame they didn’t think of a less haphazard way to assemble them into a movie. The film has too many awkward scenes of Tupac imagining his career or getting inspired for lyrics that it often feels like a hip-hop version of ‘Walk Hard’ without the irony or parody. Were it not for the fact that parody movies are so passé these days, ‘All Eyez on Me’ would feel like an ideal template for a movie that lampoons this, ‘Notorious’, the admittedly quite good ‘Straight Outta Compton’, and the next few rounds of hip-hop bio cheese.
It’s amazing how stories this unique can still succumb to the same formulas of bio-pics about the likes of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and so many more. I suppose it’s easier to just pick a new tumultuous and influential musician’s life and plug it into the paint-by-numbers routine. It’s weird to see that happen to the likes of Tupac, but if any musician is significant enough, the cornball bio-pic machine will eventually swallow them up some day. This time it’s Tupac’s turn. No word on who’s next.