Greg Eichelberger reviews 'All Eyez On Me'

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

There are good musical biopics ("Love and Mercy," "Ray," "Walk the Line," "La Bamba," "Straight Outta Compton") and there are bad ones ("Jolson Sings Again," "The Doors," "Great Balls Of Fire," "Notorious"), now, we get a solid, but mediocre presentation in the latest, "All Eyez On Me."
Directed by Benny Boom ("Next Day Air"), this film tells the tale of rapper (and hip-hip icon - to some) Tupak Shapur, who made his fame in a musical genre, frankly, many people cannot either understand or appreciate.
I for one, in full disclosure, have written many times in the past that I am no fan of “Gangsta Rap.” I am not an advocate of an art form that glorifies and promotes violence, profanity and the degradation of women, no matter how many of those things are an everyday part of the rappers’ lives. Using the bathroom is an everyday occurrence, as well, but I do not necessarily want to hear about it in a song.
Nevertheless, I am passionate about music, and while I have my favorite kinds, I still appreciate when a movie celebrates that topic in a new and interesting light, like "Compton," the tale of the militant rap amalgamation, NWA (Niggas Wit Attitude) was able to do.
Here, we get the full (and I DO mean "full," as the picture runs approximately 140 — often excruciating — minutes) telling of the story of Shapur (Demetrius Shipp, Jr. in his debut who looks so much like the artist it's frightening), born of radical and criminal parents in New York City. We get bits and pieces of his childhood, in which abject poverty is touched upon, but overt racism (EVERY white police officer and just about every Caucasian is a horrible caricature in and of itself) seems to be the biggest factor during the first act.
All of this is being told to a Mario Van Peebles-like journalist (Harper Hill,"Concussion") interviewing the star in prison and remembered in a series of flashback vignettes.
Somehow, the poor kid excels in acting and meets the young Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, "Addicted"), argues with his druggie mother (Danai Gurira, "Mother Of George"), supports his younger sister, yet still has time to perfect his syntax, which leads him to a roadie/background gig for alternative rappers, Digital Underground (a group that hit with "The Humpty Dance" in 1990).
Getting the taste of the good life, along with pot (which Shapur seems to have taken an exceedingly great liking to), he yearns to get out on his own and finally does by signing with white-owned Interscope Records.
The entity was founded in 1990 by Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field as a $20 million joint venture with Warner Music Group's Atlantic Records. At the time, it differed from most record companies by giving decision-making authority to its A&R staff and allowing artists and producers complete creative control.
This entices Shapur who is pushing a single about a 12-year old girl who is molested, raped, has a baby, turns to drugs and prostitution and ends up dead — not exactly a fun time on the radio (and our parents complained about the Beatles!).
Still, the label appreciates his passion and vision and promotes several very successful albums. Delving deeper into the "rapper's lifestyle," which includes cash, alcohol, drugs, women and above all, power, he continues to write and perform songs about the dreariness of inner urban existence punctuating themes of death, drugs and deprivation.
After arguing with Interscope about money, he makes the decision to go with Death Row Records, a label owned by the brilliantly psychotic Suge Knight (Dominic L.Santana, another actor making his debut, but playing the slightly insane mogul as a gregarious and sadistic monster, that could be amazingly charming while he was pistol-whipping the crap out of someone; sort of like an African dictator - Idi Amin coming immediately to mind).
He also makes friends with such hip-hop icons icons as Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis, with his vocals clearly dubbed by the Dogg-Man) and Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., played by Jamal "Gravy" Woolard, another actor in this production who has an uncanny resemblance to the character they are playing.
This relationship, though close, nevertheless perpetuated the confusion East-West rap rivalry (or whatever that nonsense was all about).
After Shapur is shot and arrested several times, and he is finally released from prison on — what some say is a trumped up — rape charge, the third act's narrative slows to an exhaustingly stagnant pace and begins drifting all over the place.
Finally, we see the title card, Sept. 7, 1996 and for those who know means the film is drawing to a close with the — no spoiler required here — artist's eventual death at the hands of a drive-by shooter after a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas.
The film is both impressive and frustrating at the same time, bringing out some very intriguing facts and statistics, yet leaving so many holes and questions, as well, especially for those big fas of the artist.
Unfortunately, those lesser fanatics (or those who know nothing nor can care less about the man) this is not going to be attractive at all. Another flaw is that while Boom attempts to present both the good and bad of Shapur, the overall impression is that he was a really good guy who had to endure a series of bad events that just happen to fall in front of him (rape, murder and shooting incidents seem to follow him time and time again) as writers Jeremy Haft ("Street Kings 2: Motor City"), Steven Bagatourian ("American Gun") and Eddie Gonzalez ("Street Kings 2") attempt to create a mostly sympathetic character.
I give credit to the production staff, led by Derek R. Hill (the remake of "The Magnificent Seven"), for it's detail and period design, but overall, the movie struggles to find itself featuring a title entity that few Americans have any idea about or even the slightest interest in. It's a game struggle, but eventually a failing one.
Grade: C-