Rapper Tupac Shakur was a revolutionary, a brilliant artist cut down in his prime, who became more iconic after his death. The son of a Black Panther, a high school chum of Jada Pinkett Smith, and a vanguard of West Coast gangsta rap, Shakur endured, and produced, far more in his 25 years than most ever do, and his life story has been overdue for the biopic treatment.
After a long gestation, “All Eyez on Me,” directed by Benny Boom, arrives in theaters, but this disorganized biopic isn’t worthy of its subject’s remarkable life.
Playing the part of Shakur is Demetrius Shipp Jr., who looks eerily like the rapper, channeling Shakur in a performance in which actor and real person ultimately meld together. The physical comparison is uncanny, in his bobbing, lanky-limbed dance movements and head-swiveling delivery. In recreations of television interviews, Shipp nails the energetic cadence of the outspoken Shakur.
But the film surrounding Shipp is rough going. “All Eyez on Me” gets off to a bumpy start, as it skitters wildly from life event to life event, dates, locations and story-framing devices pummeling the screen. We’re given a flash forward to Shakur onstage in front of adoring fans, then to a prison interview to guide us through his childhood and early career. It’s lazy screenwriting.
The first 45 minutes of “All Eyez on Me” never gels, with bizarre transitions and characters that are scarcely introduced. It feels like much was left on the editing room floor, though even more could have gone. The film only finds its legs in the second half, as Shakur becomes caught up in drama with Death Row Records, Suge Knight and the East Coast/West Coast rap beef.
The trick with biopics is knowing what — and what not — to include, and the writers erred on the side of more is more, rather than choosing events to best express Shakur’s life story.
Boom milks the life out of dramatic moments with an on-the-nose gospel song, or a camera swirling around Tupac as he comes to a revelation. Subtlety is not his strong suit, and he seems to have told his actors “bigger!” all the time. Danai Gurira, playing Shakur’s mother, reaches operatic heights.
Shakur was a complicated, nuanced person. Raised by a militant freedom fighter, he recited Shakespeare in art school and witnessed the ravages of drugs on his family. He found a voice in gangsta rap, but he was more than just “thug life” and saw his music as a message of black liberation. That complexity is flattened in this film. It’s a delight to watch Shipp channel Shakur, but ultimately, the imitation doesn’t come close to the real thing.
‘All Eyez on Me’
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality. 2:20. Fayette, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.