Review – All Eyez on Me
The biopic of baldy hip-hop prophet Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996. His murder remains unsolved.
What’s it about?
Believe it or not, it’s about Tupac. Directed, passionlessly, by music-video veteran Benny Boom, the film wants to chronicle the short life of its subject by visiting a litany of major and minor rest-stops on his serpentine road to success, from his upbringing in a family of (mostly female) Black Panthers and his early interest in acting and Shakespeare, to his ascent through the hip-pop charts and the artistic merit of his no-holds-barred content. The film is a punishing 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and considering that Tupac was only 25 years old when he died, you’d assume that there’d be plenty of time to examine his story with some intimacy. No such luck. This is an old-school biopic that plays like someone reading Tupac’s Wikipedia page. What it mostly seems to be about is one ******* thing after another.
Any good, then?
Care to elaborate?
Sure. As far as musical biopics go, All Eyez on Me is one of the most worthless, soulless, and unnecessary entries into the genre that I can recall. Confusing and hostile to newcomers; too underwhelming and glossy for fans; and cripplingly overwhelmed by its desire to proliferate Tupac’s saintliness rather than be honest, engaging or interesting.
So it’s biased?
It is, but not by omission, as these things usually are. All Eyez on Me is afflicted with a more insidious strain of denial that refuses to acknowledge any potential flaw in Tupac’s thinking or actions, despite the movie itself explicitly showing his thinking to be flawed and his actions to be profoundly misguided.
Aren’t all biopics like that, though?
A lot, yeah. But the problem with this one isn’t so much that it’s coming from the slanted perspective of Tupac’s friends and family, but that it offers no real space for his depiction to breathe; to become a living character rather than an (admittedly well-observed) impersonation by Demetrius Shipp Jr.
This is a movie that is about Tupac, sure, but it’s about the Tupac that was moulded by popular culture during the height of his fame, and after his death. It’s about Tupac the rapper, the actor, the activist, the victim, but never about Tupac the man, who was far more interesting than the perfect doppelganger All Eyez on Me presents us with.
It’s working backwards, essentially. Rather than showing how the various trials and tribulations of his life moulded him into the brash, angry artist he eventually became, the movie starts with Tupac’s legend, and contorts his life to reinforce it. Boom has no interest in nuance or ambiguity. And that’s fine if you’re, let’s say, seeing Tupac explain the merits of his teen-pregnancy song “Brenda’s Got A Baby” to a couple of lily-white executives (an embarrassingly bad scene). But Boom elects to frame a controversial sexual assault case in the same way – within the context of a biopic’s facts. Here’s the woman intimately dancing with Tupac the night before, here she is again giving him a massage, and there’s Tupac, alone, asleep in a different room, as men he ostensibly barely knows gang-rape her without his knowledge. Boom even has the audacity to show the woman during Tupac’s sentencing for the crime, celebrating with her lawyer and giving him a triumphant little smirk. It’s ******* disgusting.
He went to prison, though.
He did, and as it happens, his time there functions as a narrative framing device; his interview with a journalist prompting flashbacks. But even that is bizarrely sloppy in its execution. Instead of each conversation during his incarceration prompting a handful of scenes, as such things usually do, it bounces to the past for one scene, and then back to prison for another, and then back to the past, back to the prison, constantly, confusingly, until eventually the movie catches up to the framing device and just continues to chug along its own fractured chronology.
Is Biggie in it, at least?
He is, played once again by Jamal Woolard, who reprises the role from 2009’s Notorious. That’s an inspired bit of casting, and when he turns up, briefly, his measured responses to Tupac’s outlandish behaviour seem welcome – he’s one of the first people in the story who don’t immediately see Tupac as some kind of exalted saviour. In Notorious, Anthony Mackie played Tupac as a deranged paranoiac, and while All Eyez on Me doesn’t go quite so far in depicting his instability – particular in regards to his shooting in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios, his well-publicised beef with Biggie, and the senseless East Coast vs. West Coast culture war – you still get the sense, with Woolard’s presence, that he’s as sick of Tupac in this movie as he was in his own.
Who else turns up?
There’s the inevitable arrival of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), the cigar-chomping CEO of Death Row Records, who here is such a cartoonish villain that it’s mindboggling whenever Tupac continues to laugh and clap along with his mental outbursts. But my personal favourite was Jarrett Ellis, who plays Snoop Dogg, looking nothing like him but sounding exactly like him, to such an extent that I think he was lip-syncing his dialogue with the real Snoop’s voice.
Okay. The important question. Who killed him?
All Eyez on Me doesn’t say, but it at least resists the temptation to indulge in conspiracy theories and overt finger-pointing at Tupac’s rivals. In all likelihood, Tupac was gunned down because of childish gangland tit-for-tat, and it’s a shame that such an important man, whose short life was so fascinating, had his brilliance snuffed out at an intersection when he had scarcely reached adulthood.
What’s also a shame is that All Eyez on Me fails to scrutinise that life in a way that’s meaningful or interesting, instead artlessly holding Tupac aloft as an outlaw hip-hop sociopath, one whose every shred of identity is in service to his posthumous gangsta legacy. The movie knows that Tupac mattered, but it never manages to figure out why.
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