Following the life and times of a young Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), All Eyez on Me casts his development as an artist against the socio-political context of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. From his mother’s association with the Black Panther movement to the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, we get a revealing glimpse into the events that shaped the icon we know as 2Pac.
It’s difficult to overstate the cultural impact of Tupac Shakur. Whether it’s inspiring Kung-Fu Kenny to make his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, shedding a global light on the devastating social issues that perpetually haunted him (and are a blight on Western society to this day) or appearing alongside Snoop Dogg as a posthumous hologram at Coachella 2012, ‘Pac is the kind of hip-hop artist that even your gran could name. His legend looms large, lingering so fervently in the pop-cultural consciousness that even the greatest rap-sceptic is at least vaguely aware of his charisma, his social conscience and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Any biopic is faced with an embarrassment of riches.
Unfortunately, such ubiquity is a double-edged sword, as Benny Boom discovers in the misguided All Eyez on Me. The details of Shakur’s life have been raked over and disseminated for around a quarter of a century, which poses quite an interesting quandary: reheat the same old tidbits and you risk redundancy, but deviate too far from the myth we all know and you stand to upset the apple cart. The best bet when faced with this scenario is to follow the route well-travelled by James Mangold’s Walk the Line: treat the Big Events as a way into the myth, and then use this window to explore how context shaped the man. Lord knows there’s no shortage of opportunities to do that with Tupac’s story – how about his relationship with his mother and her Black Panther connections, or the burning social injustices he encountered at the hands of the LAPD, or his Bergman-esque relationship with his faith? There’s a thousand great movie’s buried within his life, but Boom perplexingly – even maddeningly – avoids them at each turn.
The central problem is quite literally embodied by Demetrius Shipp Jr. Physically, he’s eerily uncanny: the thousand-yard smile, the piercing eyes, the inimitable cut of his jib. Shipp Jr. is perfectly fine in the role, tapping into 2Pac’s physicality with ease and bringing the rapper’s tale to life in a way that is never less than basically convincing. But that’s all it ever is: surface. Beyond a decent impersonation, there’s nothing that resonates. We get nothing more than a sliver of a glimpse of the dark soul behind the public persona, and even less of an idea of how his various stimuli coalesced to create the force of nature so prevalent in rap’s evolution as an art form.
Framed, at least initially, by a series of shoddy ‘interviews’ that comment on the flashback action insofar as they literally explain what we just witnessed or are about to witness, the scenes of ‘Pac’s rags-to-riches rise breeze by with the inconsequential air of a meringue. We cycle through events with a disposable arbitrariness, Boom doing little to connect one to another and even less to create a sense of building momentum. It sits squarely in the ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened’ school of biopics, and is ultimately no more illuminating than a cursory scan of a Wikipedia page.
All of this makes All Eyez on Me sound like a resounding failure, which it isn’t, at least not quite. There are flashes of inspiration in here – moments that come close to approximating the dynamism that defined Tupac’s persona – such as the stretch that sees him bouncing out of prison and straight into Death Row’s recording studios, or scenes that fleetingly touch upon the sometimes- pyrrhic nature of his success, and it’s enough to make you long for the movie that could have existed after three or four redrafts. Such flashes of incisiveness appear near-accidental, though, buried as they are beneath layers of confused storytelling and ill-fittingly pedestrian filmmaking. The result, as it is, is passable – but when would Mr Shakur have ever settled for that?