The Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me finally sputters into theaters after a decade-plus in development hell, dragging with it all the attendant bottlenecks of the authorized biography genre. Exactly like Straight Outta Compton, Benny Boom’s film toggles between feeling widescreen-cinematic and TV-movie cheap in presentation, less interrogating Tupac as a real person who walked the Earth than re-exhuming him yet again as a litany of Behind the Music-style legends and apocrypha. It will surprise no one that the Tupac of this film is both sinner and saint, the same (holy) cash cow featured into infinity on bootleg shirts, CDs, and posthumous “collaborations.”
On balance, Demetrius Shipp Jr. brings true moxie to his leading turn: Beyond an uncanny resemblance to Tupac, he plausibly embodies the prolific rapper’s head-first bluster, quicksilver tongue, and chameleonic change-ups of persona. But even when appearing ferocious or hilarious (and while containing a million other multitudes, the real Tupac was very much both), this Tupac reeks from the start of commercial necrophilia. Albeit occasionally thrilling, the icons rendered here are shadows, echoing back to a moment now that’s over two decades old—making the film an exercise in nostalgia for one generation of ticket-buyers and a schooling in cultural literacy for the next.
Beyond Shipp’s dedicated performance, the real surprise of All Eyez on Me is that if you have the meagerest appetite for this music or the personalities behind it, the film is pretty damn entertaining—an epic-length B movie that punches stubbornly above its own weight. The narrative crosses a staggering span of time and places, beginning in Lindsay-era New York with Tupac’s militant activist mother, Afeni (Danai Gurira), within seconds of appearing on screen for the first time, delivering a soliloquy on U.S. imperialism and the remoteness of justice for African-Americans everywhere. The camera registers her pregnant belly with telltale gaze, and from there Boom draws Tupac’s life in one such lesson-in-shorthand after another: It takes two camera angles to establish him as a teenager (cast as Hamlet in a high school production), and three for his first trip to the Oakland projects to deteriorate into witnessing a crack-driven stabbing. (Tupac’s affinity to Shakespeare, with all its incipient “who-da-thunk it?” classism, gets brought up at least five more times.)
The tension between verisimilitude and economy of storytelling dictates everything in All Eyez on Me.
The density of clichés achieved here runs the risk of one-upping Jake Kasdan’s 2007 biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. In record-shattering time, Tupac rewrites his political consciousness to fit his superstardom, falls out with Afeni, and finds himself indeed against the world: revolutionaries, racist cops, fame whores and thunder-stealers, and eventually his old friend Biggie Smalls (Jamal “Gravy” Woolard, reprising his turn from 2009’s Notorious). The bulk of the narrative takes place between 1993 and 1996, when Tupac went to prison for his complicity in a rape which the film insists he wasn’t okay with, and left Interscope—the scene of a brief, MADtv-worthy boardroom discussion about censorship—to join Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Death Row Records.
All Eyez on Me repeatedly invites comparison to Straight Outta Compton, as Boom’s film contains scenes that feel like facsimiles from that one. Suge Knight’s (Dominic L. Santana) villainy gives focus to the final act, wherein Tupac doubles down on the recklessly inflated West versus East Coast beef that would be his and Biggie’s downfall. Tupac’s final moments at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas are almost comically belabored: As he prepares to reclaim the honor of an insulted member of his posse, his girlfriend, Kidada Jones (Annie Ilonzeh), begs him not to go—and when he does, she looks through the peephole before he then wavers, turns back, then recommits to his decision.
These moments serve as detours into romantic fatalism vis-à-vis what was, in reality, a preventable tragedy—and in Boom’s film such moments don’t even register as homage so much as wish-fulfillment. Like the revisionist histories of Straight Outta Compton (wherein Dr. Dre never laid a finger on journalist Dee Barnes) or Notorious (wherein Biggie was just about to turn the corner on his old life before being gunned down), Tupac’s self-doubt at the end is as impossible to prove as it is too easy to presuppose. The filmmakers don’t burn even a minute in search of Tupac’s own political praxis; after the controversy that engulfs him over “I Get Around” and its objectification of women, he opens his next live set with “Keep Ya Head Up,” and Boom dutifully cuts to the ladies singing along in the crowd. Watching this, you’d never know that, while straddling the worlds of gangland and black power, the real Tupac warned crip-turned-activist Sanyika Shakur that “that movement shit will fuck you up.”
The tension between verisimilitude and economy of storytelling dictates everything in All Eyez on Me. Tupac’s creative process is left entirely to the imagination—a dismissal worsened by an end-title card that bemoans his insane output of 500+ songs and seven albums by the age of 25. What’s left is little more than a diversion, a string of capitulations to myth in pursuit of the almighty dollar. (And speaking of which: Despite the immaculately recreated ’90s hairstyles and fashions, it’s hard imagining anything more expensive in the film’s budget than the rights to Tupac’s actual songs.) Even if Boom’s vision comes off, at times, as admirably complicated, the Tupac of All Eyez on Me vanishes in the swarm of hangers-on who’ve affixed themselves to his legend—a coterie which, it must be said, now includes the filmmakers. Like a hundred others, he’s a singular artist co-opted by the people surrounding him, and as with near-every other musician biopic, you’ll learn more about the subject by staying home and listening to the records.