Originally published on Creator’s.co on June 18th, 2017
Tupac Shakur is one of the biggest names in the Hip Hop/Rap music scene. He wasn’t just a big name because of his music (which was among the best) but his larger than life personality, swagger, complexity, and knack for the performance helped him to get to that level. I must confess I’m not a hardcore Tupac fan but I do really enjoy his music when I sit down and listen to it. The background of the rapper and poet’s personal life, that I do know about, suggests he was a flawed man but never the less an interesting one, one that wanted his music to stand for something.
After the incredible success of F. Gary Grey’s Straight Outta Compton (released in 2015) it got me, and a lot of other people, interested to see what was going to be the next music biopic centered around the world of hip-hop? Tupac seemed like a natural choice to get the big screen treatment. In development for a few years, the eventual Benny Boom-directed All Eyez On Me would take a look at the man from birth to his death on the Las Vegas strip.
Everything that I just wrote about regarding what Tupac was/is, is not reflected here in this movie. All Eyez On Me is a disjointed, poorly acted, terribly edited, dull, and amateurish affair. Taking Straight Outta Compton out of it, this movie not only fails to live up that film’s legacy (which has now set the gold standard for the modern music biopic) but it fails to even live up to Notorious (which wasn’t a good movie either). All Eyez On Me is a lazy 140-minute music affair.
A lot of biopics fall into the trap of trying to fit in as much of a person’s life that it possibly can without stopping once to think about, what story am I telling? What is important to highlight to get across the arc of this character? All Eyez On Me is a perfect example of why this isn’t a good approach. This movie starts off when Tupac is in prison as he speaks to a reporter. Through those conversations, we flash back to parts of Tupac life leading up to this moment. We get so many flashbacks, trying to hit on each “important” moment in his life that the movie feels less like a story but a Microsoft Word bullet point checklist. These flashback scenes are short, filled tons of preaching (not to the audience but to the characters), swelling of emotional music, and full of characters that make little impact on the story of Tupac (in how it relates to this movie). The story that is being told here (written by Steven Bagatourian, Eddie Gonzalez, Jeremy Haft) is something I would have tried to write five years ago; where I would try to make each scene so emotionally charged and big but without stopping and realizing that some scenes need to be slower, some scenes need to breathe, and scenes have to be about something and connect to the overarching story. Not every scene can be this massively important and emotionally charged scene, it has to be a piece of the story.
These scenes don’t leave an impact not only because of Benny Boom’s lack of energy in screen direction (and strange stylistic choices) but also because they are so short that they don’t feel important at all. This all feels trivial, something I could just read about. Furthermore, a lot of these small events feel glossed over. If you’re going to gloss over something then you might as well not have it in the first place. For over half of the movie, All Eyez On Me is a series of isolated scenes that don’t flow and connect with each other to tell a narrative. I don’t mind some divergence from the main story but these scenes don’t feel like they serve much in the way of character building or interest. It’s all random! For instance, Tupac moves to California and all of a sudden has a record deal and doing music videos. It just jumped to that. There was no build up, there was no struggle or even set up. All of a sudden he is a pro rapper. Compare that to Compton or Notorious (I can’t believe I’m using that movie as an example) we are given a full view of the character. We’re in the trenches with them as they struggle for success. We want to see them succeed because we are seeing their rise from where they were. While those movies we’re in the trenches, here it feels like we are flying above the action and story rather than being an active participant in it.
The second half of the movie works better because it drops the flashback structure and starts operating like an actual movie where events are more interconnected and the story flows a bit better. It still doesn’t get into the meat of who Tupac is but I can’t say it doesn’t get somewhat better.
But even when it comes this half Benny Boom demonstrates that he isn’t up to the task as a director. He doesn’t infuse any of Tupac’s personality into the movie nor really any person of any kind. Boon directs the actors poorly and doesn’t give the scenes the proper energy and framework they deserve. The “action scenes” are laughably bad with very poor camera work and editing. The manner in which he decided to shoot and edit the death scene of Tupac was one of the worst handled scenes in biopic history (that’s without hyperbole). Once again he places the camera far away, and rarely gets in deep with the action, he plays really cheesy R&B music on top of the scene and makes ineffective use of slow motion. This feels rather impersonal for something we’ve been building too for over two hours.
I don’t know if he was in the editing room or not, but the editing choices for not only this scene but the movie as a whole were horrible. The editing here was worse than Suicide Squad. There was establishing shots that I swear looked like PowerPoint presentations. There is no excuse that a major release should be edited this poorly.
I could go on and on about the technical mistakes (like the horrible lip dubbing) but let’s move on to Tupac himself, played by Demetrius Shipp Jr. Jr. looks like Tupac, almost uncanny actually. But looking like someone does not make a performance. What performance is better? Aston Kutcher or Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs? Kutcher looked just like the tech icon but Fassbender has the much better performance regardless of appearance. Fassbender embodied the different sides of Steve Jobs, he commanded the screen and gave the character depth in between moments of dialogue (Fassbender was nominated for Oscar for his work there). Kutcher did his best imitation of Jobs. Shipp doesn’t inhabit the character of Tupac. Everything he does feels like a performance, an imitation, not a fully fleshed out character on screen. He has his moments but his tendency to confuse overacting with confidence and bravado robs him of what should be a star-making performance. When Shipp tries to act visually it’s hard to understand what he is trying to convey (other than perhaps being bored?).
It doesn’t help that the writing doesn’t allow Shipp to really fully explore Tupac as a character. He is written really as a one-note hero ignoring all the complexity that comes with a real-life figure like Tupac. Showing a character’s darker side (or not showing him a positive light) isn’t disrespectful nor will it rob us of our image and love of the real-life figure. Walk the Line directed by James Mangold (my favorite music biopic) showed a side of Johnny Cash that most people don’t know about. Focusing on his struggles with drugs and alcohol humanized him. When you got down to it, Walk The Line was about the love story between Johnny and June Carter as much as it was about his rise to fame. That’s part of why Walk The Line is so such a great movie, it’s about something and gives the characters real depth. We aren’t given that chance with Tupac because he is always shown in shining light. We don’t delve into his struggle, his drama. We are shown some struggle but it never feels like we delve into it. We are told about some stuff he is going through but you never experience it.
If Straight Outta Compton set the new gold standard for not only hip hop/rap movies but music biopics as a whole than All Eyez On Me represents the antithesis. All Eyez On Me sets the new standard for how poorly a music biopic can be executed. There are only a few redeeming qualities of the movie (like some small supporting performances from Danai Gurira and Kat Graham). Every once in a while some of the individual scenes shine and Shipp does show moments of promise underneath the caricature he playing. However, nearly everything else weighs the movie down. The directing is horrendous, the story lacks a flow or focus (and lacks anything that really makes a narrative a narrative, like arcs and development), the editing is pathetic and the characterizations one note. Underneath all of this, there is a good movie, one that is worth telling and making about Tupac. At one point Antoine Fuqua of Training Day fame was apparently attached to direct and then even John Singleton of Boyz n the Hood fame. Instead, we got Benny Boon, director of the direct to video sequel SWAT: Firefight. I can sit back and wonder what might have been with either of those two behind the camera. I really wanted to like this movie, but this didn’t even leave me with much to sit back and enjoy. All Eyez On Me is not worthy of the original double LP album name nor Tupac’s.