The ’90s Rap Soap Opera Rides Again In ‘All Eyez On Me’

Much like Straight Outta Compton, I don’t put much stock in All Eyez On Me‘s version of the Tupac story, but it’s plenty fun to relive all the old narratives we loved back in the ’90s. The women! The beefs! The music! The murder! This long-gestating biopic from music video director Benny Boom certainly doesn’t shatter any myths and barely elaborates on existing ones, but to a certain extent, all these movies have to do is create a dramatic build for the opening bars of “Boyz In Da Hood” or “California Love.” The songs themselves have a narrative and an emotional resonance that transcends any scene you might put around them.

All Eyez On Me‘s hokey narrative structure, which literally follows Tupac from fetus to corpse, wouldn’t play if its subject was, say, Eli Whitney. But when it’s a sexy charismatic rap star who died in a hail of bullets at 25, it’s fine. Any time things get boring, you can just film some naked groupies or crank up another Tupac song and half the audience will get goosebumps all over again. All Eyez On Me doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel and it knows it.

There are practical limits to what an authorized biopic can actually accomplish. Unless you want to hear “T-Pac” rap “this is for my neighbor Caitlyn,” the artist’s estate has to approve, and Afeni Shakur‘s squabbles with All Eyez On Me‘s producers are well-documented. She died just after the film wrapped, so it’s impossible to say what she would’ve thought of the final product, but her character is easily the weakest of the film. Beginning with her first scene, clad in a black leather jacket and speaking to reporters on the steps outside a courthouse after the acquittal of the Panther 21, Afeni’s lines are all voice-of-God rants of the kind Keenan Ivory Wayans would’ve popped out a window to say “message!” after in Don’t Be A Menace. Danai Gurira delivers them all with a histrionic conviction that makes you ache for the next scene.

Conversely, the film’s strongest asset is the actor playing Tupac himself, Demetrius Shipp Jr., who’s mesmerizing, even if his portrayal assumes that the Tupac we saw in music videos and news clips and stock footage was basically the same manic, expressive guy behind closed doors. I’m not so sure, though I can’t exactly provide evidence to the contrary. That’s sort of All Eyez On Me in a nutshell. While his grasp of capital D Drama and exposition are creaky at times, Benny Boom is fairly brilliant at weaving in stock footage to bolster storylines that I’m otherwise pretty sure are bullshit Hollywood stuff — news clips, court transcripts, real (I think — I couldn’t tell so it doesn’t really matter) surveillance footage from the casino lobby fight in Vegas. Yes, they definitely only jumped that guy because he’d robbed one of Pac’s crew. And Pac was totally innocent in that rape he went to jail for. And hey did you know he only shot those cops because they were beating up a black guy and shouting the N word? That feels wrong, but All Eyez On Me makes a good enough case for its version.

Of course, it also does what virtually all music biopics do, and treats artistic inspiration as something that comes from God and destiny and the streets and the struggle and not lots of practice. I mean, this is a movie about Tupac. Have you heard Tupac? There was no one who rhymed as smoothly, as lucidly, as seemingly effortlessly as that guy, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t because his mom was a Panther or because he witnessed a murder on his first day in Oakland. Granted, those things are probably more interesting than watching someone practice their rhymes, but for a guy who had enough material for seven posthumous albums and 11 total by the time he was 25, there’s precious little in All Eyez On Me about Tupac’s psychotically driven workaholic side. To me that’s at least as interesting as him trying to “tell the story of the streets,” and deserves as much screen time as his didactic lecture to Interscope execs who didn’t want to release “Brenda’s Got A Baby.”

There are hints at the origins of Tupac’s singular proficiency, like him practicing Shakespeare with his high school classmate Jada Pinkett (who’s called BS on the parts of the film you’d probably guess were BS, incidentally), but those feel there more so we can see Tupac quoting Shakespeare throughout the movie (*eye roll*), less as a way to explain why Digital Underground hired him after a 15-second audition. By the way, Chris Clarke’s portrayal of Shock G is brief, but delightful.

One the film’s most overwrought artistic choices is a callback to The Untouchables, with Dominic Santana’s Suge Knight standing in for De Niro’s Al Capone, brutalizing a guest at a fancy dress dinner, complete with opera music in the background. Wait, are you saying that… Suge Knight thought of himself as a mafia don? What a fascinating parallel…

All Eyez On Me is the same old ’90s rap fairy tale, but we loved it then and it’s entertaining enough now. It mostly traffics in the same weird myth as all musician biopics — this strange idea that people who make great art are divine, saintly people. It’s especially pervasive in our coverage of musicians and no matter how many times we see it refuted, there’s something in our reptilian brains that needs to justify our deep emotional connection to music with a belief in the deep empathy of the musician. Tupac really got it, man. He and John Lennon and Bob Marley and Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse were fonts of ancient wisdom. It’s clear that we desperately need to believe this, and you can’t really fault All Eyez On Me for knowing its audience.