Biopics are tricky thing to balance, as a filmmaker must condense the span of events in a person's life into a streamlined cinematic narrative, while still being able to provide deep insight and character analysis of the subject. All Eyez On Me, the biopic based on the life of rapper/actor/activist Tupac Shakur not only fails to strike that balance - it can't even meet either of the two requirements for a biopic to be even marginally successful. In other words: All Eyez On Me is the disaster Tupac fans have always dreaded.
The story starts off when Tupac is young and growing up in NYC, showcasing how his relationship with his mother, Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), fundamentally shaped the conflicting thug/social activist sides of Tupac's persona. From there, we move to Tupac's years in Baltimore, and his studies in acting, where he meets his eventual best friend, Jada Pinkett. Tupac's talent for acting and poetry eventually brings him breakout stardom, and leads him to musical group Digital Underground. From there, Tupac's career as a solo rap superstar is born.
The mix of raw socio-political commentary and inflammatory sexual and/or violent imagery in Tupac's music quickly makes him just as infamous as he is famous. But when violence and sex become very real life traumas, it starts the revolutionary rapper down a much darker path - ultimately leading to his untimely death.
All Eyez On Me comes our way courtesy of music video director Benny Boom, who desperately wants to convey the larger-than-life stature of Tupac, but lacks the directorial skill and experience to craft a full cinematic narrative - certainly one as complex as Tupac's life story. All Eyez On Me is scatterbrained in focus and sloppily edited, resulting in biopic that plays like a bad cable movie, falling well below what is expected from a major movie about an important and impactful cultural figure.
As stated, All Eyez On Me, is staged and shot very sloppily and amateurishly when trying to depict dramatic scenes from Tupac's life; it becomes clear as the movie shifts into the prime days of the rapper's career that Boom's talent (and interest) is in creating "music video moments" - i.e., conveying scenes of Tupac's life through visuals cued to music from the rapper's extensive library. The are instances when that mix results in powerful cinematic magic; however, a majority of the sequences also feel arbitrary and extraneous to the main narrative - as if this biopic was somehow also a musical, which it is not.
Oddly enough, the film indulges in using Tupac's songs more so than actually tracking the life events that inspired them - which is what a biopic is supposed to do. The most glaring example is the hit song "California Love," which comes booming into play as Tupac emerges from jail and heads to Los Angeles in the mid-90s - a musical montage which is immediately (and redundantly) followed by the scene of Tupac actually arriving at Death Row Records and recording the song with Dr. Dre. That's just one redundancy among many in the screenplay by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian, and it proves that Boom has yet to fully grasp the logic of constructing a feature-film.
While All Eyez On Me indulges in essentially recreating Tupac music videos, it manages to drop or outright ignore pivotal events that impacted its subject's life. Much screen time is invested in glamorizing Tupac's first days at Death Row and recording tracks for the titular All Eyez On Me double album; yet so little time is dedicated to actually explaining or analyzing the East Coast/West Coast beef that album came out of - which was played out through the friendship-turned-rivalry between Tupac and rapper Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard, reprising his role from the Biggie biopic, Notorious). Instead, we're supposed to experience that major piece of history through small anecdotal moments between Tupac and side characters like Jada Pinkett, Dr. Dre (Harold House Moore) or Snoop Dogg (a very miscast Jarrett Ellis). If there is one thing All Eyez On Me has in common with the far superior Straight Outta Compton, it's that the handling of the Death Row era storyline is messy and woefully understated, given the massive cultural impact it had.
Watching the performances of the main cast, it's even more apparent that the blame for All Eyez On Me's deficiencies rests squarely on Boom's shoulders, as newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. is almost eerily good at capturing the multifaceted essence of Tupac with nuance and charisma. Walking Dead star Danai Gurira has even more nuance and complexity in creating her role as Afeni Shakur, while Dominic L. Santana creates a compelling villain in his depiction of Suge Knight. A lot of music industry celebrity roles (Dre, Snoop) are distracting, falling more on the side of parody than performance. Kat Graham is a strong dramatic foil for Shipp, but the physical differences between her and the real Jada Pinkett are hard to ignore.
In the end, All Eyez On Me is not the milestone film that viewers have been waiting to see for more than two decades since the rapper's death. Tupac, his family, friends and fans all deserve something much better than this. While Tupac's great legacy continues to grow, this film should rightfully be left out of it.
Review Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars
All Eyez On Me is now in theaters. It is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and is Rated R for language and drug use throughout, violence, some nudity and sexuality.
Photos Courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures