There are good musical biopics (“Love and Mercy,” “Walk the Line,” “La Bamba,” “Straight Outta Compton”) and there are bad ones (“Jolson Sings Again,” “The Doors,” “Great Balls of Fire!,” “Notorious”), and there are solid, but mediocre presentations like the latest, All Eyez On Me.
Directed by Benny Boom (“Next Day Air”), All Eyez On Me tells the tale of rapper (and hip-hop icon) Tupac Shakur, who made his fame in a music genre, that frankly, many people cannot either understand or appreciate. I for one, in full disclosure, have written many times in the past that I am no fan of “Gangsta Rap.”
Nevertheless, I am passionate about music, and while I have my favorite kinds, I still appreciate when a movie celebrates that topic in a new and interesting light, like “Straight Outta Compton,” the tale of the militant rap amalgamation, N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) was able to do.
Here, we get the full (and I DO mean “full,” as the picture runs approximately 140 — often excruciating — minutes) telling of the story of Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr. in his debut who looks so much like the artist it’s frightening), born of radical and criminal parents in New York City. We get bits and pieces of his childhood, in which abject poverty is touched upon, but overt racism (EVERY white police officer and just about every Caucasian is a horrible caricature in and of itself) seems to be the biggest factor during the first act.
All of this, by the way, is being told to a Mario Van Peebles-like journalist (Hill Harper, “Concussion”) interviewing the star in prison and remembered in a series of flashback vignettes.
Somehow, the poor kid excels in acting and meets the young Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, “The Vampire Diaries” TV series), argues with his druggie mother (Danai Gurira, “The Walking Dead” TV series), supports his younger sister, yet still has time to perfect his rap, which leads him to a roadie/background gig for alternative rappers, Digital Underground (a group that hit big with “The Humpty Dance” in 1990).
Getting the taste of the good life, along with pot (which Shakur seems to have taken an exceedingly great liking to), he yearns to get out on his own and finally does by signing with white-owned Interscope Records. The entity was newly founded in 1990 by Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field and differentiated itself from other record companies by giving decision-making authority to its A&R staff and allowing artists and producers complete creative control.
This entices Shakur, who is pushing a single about a 12-year old girl who is molested, raped, has a baby, turns to drugs and prostitution and ends up dead (not exactly a fun time on the radio). Still, the label appreciates his passion and vision and promotes several very successful albums. Delving deeper into the “rapper’s lifestyle,” which includes cash, alcohol, drugs, women and above all, power, he continues to write and perform songs about the dreariness of inner urban existence punctuating themes of death, drugs and deprivation.
After arguing with Interscope, he makes the decision to go with Death Row Records, a label owned by the brilliantly psychotic Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, “Mr. Right”). He also makes friends with such hip-hop icons as Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis, with his vocals clearly dubbed by the Dogg-Man) and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls/The Notorious B.I.G., played by Jamal Woolard (“Barbershop: The Next Cut”), another actor in this production who has an uncanny resemblance to the character they are playing.
This relationship perpetuated the confusing and deadly East-West rap rivalry (or whatever that nonsense was all about).
After Shakur is shot and arrested several times, and he is finally released from prison on — what some say is a trumped up — rape charge, the third act’s narrative slows to an exhaustingly stagnant pace and begins drifting all over the place. Finally, we see the title card, Sept. 7, 1996, and to those who know, it means the film is drawing to a close with the — no spoiler alert required here — artist’s eventual death at the hands of a drive-by shooter after a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas.
All Eyez On Me is both impressive and frustrating at the same time, bringing out some very intriguing facts and statistics, yet leaving so many holes and questions, as well, especially for those big fans of the artist. Unfortunately, those lesser fanatics (or those who know nothing about him) this is not going to be attractive at all.
Another flaw is that, while Boom attempts to present both the good and bad of Shakur, the overall impression is that he was a really good guy who had to endure a series of bad events that just happen to fall in front of him (rape, murder and shooting incidents seem to follow him time and time again) as writers Jeremy Haft (“Grizzly Mountain”), Steven Bagatourian (“American Gun”) and Eddie Gonzalez (“Street Kings 2: Motor City”) attempt to create a mostly sympathetic character.
Credit to the production staff, led by Derek R. Hill (the remake of “The Magnificent Seven”), for the film’s detail and period design, but overall, All Eyez On Me struggles to find itself, featuring a polarizing title entity that few Americans have any idea about. It’s a game struggle, but eventually a failing one.