Trappings of a creative life, without the process

Music biopics are a mixed bag, and this one is more mixed than most. Few are wacky enough to be original like Todd Haynes' Dylan portrait I'm Not There or manage to land a lead actor as charismatic as Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line. Demetrius Shipp Jr., who plays the, yes, charismatic, intense, prolific, and complex black rapper Tupac Shakur, is a letter-perfect imitater of the artist, as Chadwick Bozeman is of James Brown in Get on Up - maybe even better, given the challenging gyrations Shipp has to go through, which may go even the Godfather of Soul one better. (Except just from a five-second slip of the real Tupac at the end, you can see a spark the actor lacks.) briefly plays Hamlet, is a sexy, energetic onstage rapper, is in many seamy, if brief, sex scenes, and is in repeated violent fights, taking at least five bullets before the barrage in Las Vegas that took his life at 25. He's perfect, if only the movie were. But it's by general consensus only average at best. The similar movies are Straight Outta Compton and http://=">Notorious</i>. They contain some of the same rap competitors, Notorious being about "The Notorious" Biggy Small, who's played here by the same actor.

I'm beginning to be a veteran of rap biopics, and yet I remain little the wiser, especially after All Eyez on Me. (I knew nothing about Neil Young or Metallica but after watching multiple documentaries about them, I began to.) I've learned that Tupac Shakur was his real given name: I'd never have guessed. I'm also interested to find that his mother was a Black Panther and his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was a Black Nationalist and has been in federal prison for 30 years. After growing up in New York his mother sent him to Baltimore, where he attended the outstanding Baltimore School for the Arts, where he staged and starred in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet and met Jada Pinkett (later Will Smith's wife). They were soul mates of a kind; the original Jada is unhappy with the way she and their relationship were fictionalized.

This film doesn't hit its limited stride till the second half when "Pac," as everybody calls him, gets hired on with the invitingly named Death Row Records by its boss Sugie Knight (Dominic L. Santana), music industry slave owner who's a cigar-chomping bling-bling Biggy Small of his own, and Santana gives this character a sly menace that sticks with you. Death Row Records is like the Hotel California: you can never leave. Despite a string of platinum records, Sugie has a register of debts to keep Shakur from striking out on his own - even though he had shone as an actor and might have become a director.

Ultimately the trouble with All Eyez isn't it's inability to depict any bad qualities in Pac - making him seem totally framed in the rape case that sent him to jail; or its lamely conventional use of an "interview" shot in jail to outline his early life; its overall lack of a sense of his contradictions or his brilliance or his magnetism. No, it's not those shortcomings, so much. Instead, it's that old bugaboo, the biopic's inability to show the artist at work. This time, we don't even have the usual conventional "early efforts" sequence. He's just all of a sudden a star. And all these films make me miss Curtis Hanson's Eminem biopic, 8 Mile. That shows rappers getting out their marbleized notebooks and writing lines, and then improvising them in live verbal battles with the competition. And in 8 Mile, the lines are served. You can hear them. The soundtrack of All Eyes is impressive, voluptuous: but it drowns out the words. Only in a brief discussion of a song about a real-life teen pregnancy, "Brenda's Got a Baby" does the content of Tupac's lyrics get even a brief close look. And even there we don't see him making it up.

All Eyez on Me, 140 mins., released 16 Jun. 2017.