Friday, 23 June 2017

Movie Review: All Eyez On Me (2017)

No matter how timid I may come across in these reviews, I know that talking about ideas and concepts in relation to films is still less risky than statements concerning other forms of media. Like, for instance, rap music. I will always consider myself a hip-hop head first and foremost when it comes to music, but the amount of outrage that gets generated in those circles over the most minor shit really doesn’t make me all that willing to admit to such things in public. I bring this up to help cushion the blow of what may be one of the more inflammatory statements I could make within that context: I’m not that massive on Tupac. I have respect for the guy’s place in the industry, and I certainly like some of his music, but in oh-so-popular discussions over who is the greatest MC of all time, I’m far more likely to suggest The Notorious B.I.G. than Tupac. However, with that in mind, Straight Outta Compton showed that biographical cinema and rap music intersecting could lead to great results (possibly less great than I initially thought when first watching it, but that’s a discussion for another time) so, even without absolutely loving the subject, hopefully we’ll get something similar here. Key word being “hopefully”. This is All Eyez On Me.

The plot: Framed around a series of interviews taken while he was in prison, Tupac Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) tells the story of his life. From his childhood littered with interference from racist cops to his dreams of becoming an actor to eventually becoming an artist that would catch the attention of the biggest names in the West Coast. However, as his star seems set to rise as one of hip-hop’s greatest living artists, conflicts from all sides would soon cut that path short.

This is a really damn good cast, containing some of the better performances I’ve seen this year so far. Shipp Jr. definitely makes you believe that he is Pac, and he wields his revolutionist rhetoric and music hustle as steadily as the Shakespeare quotes. Danai Gurira as Pac's mother, if I’m being honest, is the best thing about this movie; her fiery passion shown in earlier scenes, coupled with her fall and eventual recovery to lead her son down the right path, make for very compelling scenes. It’s far easier than it should be to believe that a woman made of pure conviction like this would mother one of hip-hop’s greatest legends. Kat Graham as Jada Pinkett (yes, the same Jada Pinkett now married to a far cornier and far more clean-cut MC) is very natural next to Shipp Jr. and their characters' friendship rings true as shown on screen. Chris Clarke as Tupac’s first big co-sign Shock G is very entertaining and his performance of The Humpty Dance is easily the best ‘live on stage’ iteration in the whole film. Jarrett Ellis is decent as Snoop Dogg, although we don’t really see that much of him, and Dominic L. Santana as big bad Suge Knight holds up very well. While he isn’t quite as terrifying as R. Marcus Taylor from Straight Outta Compton, he still nails the guy’s Mafioso mannerisms, up to and including a dinner scene that looks like it was pulled straight from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover with how he shows his… displeasure against those who do him wrong.

From the emphasis of Tupac’s Black Panther parents and the examples of violence happening around him (police brutality, drug-related throwdowns, and of course, Suge’s way of handling business), it seems like this film is going to go down a similar route to Compton in framing the music next to the movement that it helped fuel. However, while it starts out strongly enough with Tupac echoing his on-screen mother’s conviction against his oppressors and his aim to make the streets right again, it quickly starts to peter out. It seems that director Benny Boom’s usual mannerisms (read: ass-shaking in rap music videos, given that’s where the majority of his experience behind the camera comes from) take over as any semblance of deeper purpose to Tupac’s music gives way to the more traditional ‘rising star’ biopic tropes. Now, since I’ve already admitted to not being that into Tupac’s music, I’m not going to make any statements regarding how accurate this stance is to the man’s body of work. What I will make a statement about is that, if you’re going to bother trying to make this story have a higher meaning (something the film clearly wants to do with how literally Messianic the imagery can get), you better be able to deliver on it.

But that’s just Tupac on his own; the depiction of his infamous beef with The Notorious B.I.G. is another can of worms. However, I will admit that it’s handled slightly better than the bulk of the film. Knowing how many conspiracy theories and just theories in general are floating around concerning their deaths, the film going for the approach that it does is not only refreshingly real but also has precedent to back it up. Basically, it’s chalked up to a series of misunderstandings between the two artists that escalated out-of-control; no mention is made of the bigger East-West rivalry that spawned from it, but to be fair, that was likely more a result of the late Tim Dog’s song ‘Fuck Compton’ than anything Tupac or even Biggie did. Given what ended up sparking the Bridge Wars, another ‘classic’ hip-hop feud, this makes sense and, even though it sets up some possibilities for who was ultimately behind Tupac’s murder, it never commits to any of them completely and says what the mainstream media has been saying for years: We don’t know who pulled the trigger. That, on its own, makes sense. What doesn’t, however, is what they ended up doing to Biggie Smalls. For one, they brought back Jamal ‘Gravy’ Woolard to reprise the role from the overall decent biopic Notorious. This sounds good on paper, until you see just how tired and run down Gravy looks in this film; that role was the only real high point of his career and it kind of shows. For another, possibly as a means to make Tupac look even more ‘enlightened’ by comparison, they completely strip Biggie of any real nuance of his own and just make him out to be someone who only cares about the money and record sales. As a depiction of a guy who rapped about his mother getting cancer and nearly strangling himself with his umbilical cord, all on his first album, this rings really hollow.

But the biggest kicker of all this, though? The music isn’t even that good. Yes, I’ve already admitted that Tupac’s discography isn’t really my thing, but that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, it’s the fact that, for a film that is meant to be about the music of a great man, it doesn’t do that well at showing it; once again, it’s less bad music and more bad use of music. I highlighted The Humpty Dance earlier and I meant it when I wrote that it was the high point because, despite Shipp. Jr. honestly selling the on-screen energy and charisma, none of the other live performance scenes match up to it. Probably got something to do with how, because of the sound mixing, it’s difficult to buy that Shipp. Jr. is actually performing the vocals. As for the rest of the music business, the film tends to fixate far more on Suge Knight’s dealings than Tupac’s creative process. Even with the aggressive manner in which he’s written, it’s little wonder that Knight approved of this film and not Straight Outta Compton. Hell, whenever it does show Tupac tending to his craft, it’s all in the audio booth with no time spent on any other part of the process. If they tried to combine this with the sudden lack of socio-political intent with his Death Row Records mindset, it could have gone with the good ol’ fallen angel angle about how the fame led him astray. But alas, that only seems to come about due to apathy rather than any visible deliberate choice; in a film this overlong, you’d think that Boom and co. would have enough time to fit everything in properly.

All in all, while I don’t hate this film in any real way, it is still quite a letdown. Largely eschewing depictions of Tupac’s music in a larger cultural context, this film sticks unfortunately closely to the traditional biopic drama beats. Add to this the initial attempts to give the man’s work a sense of contemporary importance that just disappear before too long, and the rather weaksauce use of said work, and you have a serviceable but still bland affair. It’s better than Teenage Kicks, as this is watchable without very unsettling ideas creeping into the subconscious; not even this film’s admission of hip-hop misogyny gets near that area. However, this still falls short of Smurfs: The Lost Village, which also had issues in delivering subtext but it at least made proper use of it. It may have a far worse soundtrack choice than anything in this film (I still can’t believe that, in 2017, a film stooped to the point of using Eiffel 65), but overall, it still holds up better.

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