All Eyez on Me

2017-06-30 09:27

What it's about:

The life story of Tupac Shakur, the infamous rapper, activist and actor, from his rise as one of the pre-eminent “gangsta rappers” of the '90s to his still unsolved violent death in his mid 20s. 

What we thought:

Comparisons between All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton are inevitable thanks to both their close proximity and their dealing with fairly similar subject matter. Oddly, though, most people ignore Notorious, which is basically the other side to this particular tale but, considering that I have never actually seen it and that it has been all but entirely forgotten from the public at large, I don't feel too bad hanging onto those particular coat tails. 

Despite the major upset surrounding Straight Outta Compton being shut out of that year's Oscars, I was never a big fan of the film and I stand by my belief that there's a great ninety-minute film to be found in its tiresome 2.5 hour runtime - though in terms of major music biopics released that year, incidentally, even that imaginary ninety-minute cut wouldn't hold a candle to the exceptional Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, which was similarly shunned during that awards season. Credit where credit is due, though: in comparison to All Eyez on Me, Straight Outta Compton really does start to look like, well, Love and Mercy.

All Eyez On Me isn't a disaster by any means as it is a perfectly competently, albeit blandly, put-together pop biopic with a nicely solid performance by Demetrius Shipp Jr. at its centre but it nonetheless fails to be anything but a shallow retelling of Shakur's short life. 

Crucially, music biopics have two primary objectives: to give you an insight into the artist behind the music and to convey what it is about that music that would justify such a biopic in the first place. The former is difficult to get right, the latter nearly impossible, but this is what sets the truly great music biopics from something like All Eyez on Me. Walk the Line, Amadeus, The Buddy Holly Story and Love and Mercy are great movies not just because they're well made – though they all are – but because they really get to the heart of both the music and the artist behind the music. 

In light of this, Straight Outta Compton was actually a particularly strange case. Despite being a major music-lover, I have never gotten my head around hip hop, rap or modern R&B (I mostly part ways with black American music in the late '70s) but, for all of my problems with the film, it really did give me a crystal clear understanding of why N.W.A were such a big deal and, though I still can't say I would ever intentionally put on an N.W.A album, I did genuinely get into the music in the film. It was, to me, much less effective at getting under the skin of the men behind the music but that it could work on a musical level for someone who doesn't traditionally like that music is a huge point in its favour.

Bringing this all back to All Eyez on Me, the reason it's ultimately a failure – far more than its TV-movie-of-the-week direction or overall heavy handedness – is that it doesn't really tell us very much about Tupac that you can't get from reading his Wikipedia page (arguably even less than that) and there's no sense at all why his music was so important. I'm no rap fan, as I believe I've made clear, but even I know that Tupac was a big deal back in the '90s, but you would never know that from this film. 

Yes, his “gangsta” lyrics drew plenty of ire but I never got the impression that he was the first to do this – didn't N.W.A beat him to this by a few years at least? - or even that he was much better at it than most of his contemporaries. In terms of the actual music, you also never get a sense that he did anything all that innovative in this area either. Again, this might not be the case at all in real life but, as far as this particular film is concerned, the only truly innovative thing he ever did was be the first rapper to release a double album - which is pretty shocking when you consider that the genre had been around for fifteen years or so by that point. Or, to put all this as simply as possible: remember that electrifying Fuck the Police concert sequence in Straight Outta Compton? There's nothing that comes even remotely close to that here.

I suppose some rap fans may enjoy All Eyez on Me but I'm sure most of them would be disappointed by how superficial a job it does of telling the story of one of the giants of Golden Era hip hop. If you're not a rap fan, however, there's really no reason to bother with this tired mix of sex, drugs and gun violence with paint-by-numbers pop biopic conventions.

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