About six months ago, during an episode of the review-based web series Half in the Bag, the series’ hosts Mike Stoklasa, Rich Evans, and Jay Bauman began their review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with a two-and-a-half minute nerd spazzout that mocked initial fanboy reaction to the latest Star Wars film.
“X-Wings! Lightsabers — AT-STs! Remember the Rebel base? C-3PO and R2-D2 showed up and I clapped! I know what that is! I’m gonna come!” they exclaimed.
Their point was basically that more and more films are running on seat-shaking spectacle and nostalgia fumes rather than such things as story craftsmanship, consistent tone, and three-dimensional characters. Sometimes it seems like filmmakers and production companies think audiences deserve little else. The aforementioned scene came to mind midway through a screening of Benny Boom’s Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me. Like Rogue One, it is a film that, I guess, will be more enjoyable if you’re already pretty familiar with the subject. I say “I guess” because it wasn’t working for me.
The film begins as an unnamed reporter visits the Clinton Correctional Facility. It seems semi-based around the “Lost Prison Tapes” interview. We’re shuttled back in time to when the Panther 21, a group of 21 Black Panther Party members who were arrested and accused of planned attacks on two police stations and an education office in New York City, are acquitted of the charges.
One of the most outspoken members, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira) is pregnant. Cut to Afeni and her two children, Tupac and Sekyiwa, walking down the street as the FBI follows them. They raid Afeni’s house and take her husband Mutulu (Jamie Hector) to jail. Then we’re whisked to 1987 with a teenage Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) giving a Shakespeare soliloquy and writing poetry. We briefly meet his friend/muse Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham). Five minutes later, Tupac is moving to Oakland, where he meets his mentor Leila Steinberg (Lauren Cohan) who in turn introduces him to members of Digital Underground. Then he goes on tour. Then he catches Afeni trying to score some crack. Then he records tracks for his first album, 2pacalypse Now. Then he gets a role in the Hughes Brothers’ 1992 drama Juice. Then he gets more famous. Then he visits his mom fresh out of rehab. Then he sees then-Vice President Dan Quayle call out his album for anti-police rhetoric. Then he gets even more famous. Then he meets Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard). Then he begins working a little with Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana). Then he goes to jail. Then he signs with Death Row Records. Then he records the double album All Eyez On Me. Then he gets in fights. Then he records more music. Then he tries to leave Death Row. Then he has beef. Then he dies.
And therein lies the film’s major issue: It was all just a series of vignettes, cliches, and nostalgia trips taped together rather than a solidly formed story. Some moments almost felt like parody. In one of the film’s disjointed semi-montage scenes we’re introduced to 1995 Snoop (Jarrett Ellis) as Shakur makes his way through Death Row Records. For some reason, it sounds like they dubbed in real-life Calvin Broadus’ voice for the dialogue scenes. Scratch “sounds like it.” I think they actually did. It elicited chuckles from the audience.
One bright spot was the music; they played Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” as Shakur witnesses police brutality in New York City in 1987. I love that song. It’s still effective today. I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard Too $hort’s “City Of Dope” in a major motion picture. You’ll hear him and an early E-40 track when Shakur moves to Oakland. There were moments, through the choice of music, when I was getting lost in the euphoric daze of nostalgia. But they were only moments.
Rather than make a 140-minute highlight reel, why not have an entire film look at the complex relationship between Shakur and his mother? Why not make a whole film just devoted to the tumultuous friendship with Biggie? Rather than make a biopic that we’ll forget by the time the newest pointless sequel/remake makes its way into cinemas, why not make one that eschews the usual conventions? Shakur has been demonized and deified. Why not explore that?
All Eyez On Me, a film nearly 20 years in the making, could’ve been an effective, multi-faceted, warts-and-all effort about a hip-hop icon. It didn’t have to be a footnote in Tupac’s Wikipedia page. As the movie ended, I heard someone say “It’s pretty good if you walk in with lowered expectations.” That’s a common refrain we hear nowadays when it comes to movies across the board. It’s OK to want more from a movie.