movies: Notorious (2009) and All Eyez on Me (2017)

These two biopics of the last decade handle the stories of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac, Makaveli) respectively, although their stories are intertwined and each appears in each movie. First, the disclaimer: I’m not a terribly serious rap fan and don’t know a ton about these two giants. I do like some rap music and I do like what I know of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t come into these movies with much of a background of knowledge.

So I guess I came for three things: one, I wanted to hear more of the music each man made. Two, I wanted to learn more about them as people and as public icons. And three, I was interested in the ongoing question of who killed each of them. Maybe a fourth as well – I always want to enjoy a movie and/or admire it as art.

While I enjoyed both movies and took something away, my review is mixed. I feel like in both cases more could have been done with the material. All Eyez on Me takes a particular moment as narrative present and looks back: Tupac’s in prison, giving a reporter an interview. Notorious uses a narrative voiceover, also backward-looking, although it’s not clear what (if any) specific moment he’s speaking from. While this is a technique that can work, I’m not sure it was the right choice here. In Notorious in particular, I felt like it slowed the action down. In All Eyez on Me, the interview often felt performative; at times Tupac and the interviewer explain his past to one another in an obvious narration to the audience, that kind of dialogue that feels totally unrealistic because you know both characters already know everything they’re saying. In fact, I think in All Eyez, dialogue was an overall weakness. This effect faded for me as the movie went on, but I don’t know if that’s because it actually got better, or just because I got numbed to it.

The strength of each movie was definitely its material, the legend of each of these men and the groundbreaking work they each did in rap music, the music business, and the role of rap in a larger culture. Their murders, I’m afraid, are inextricable from their legends: who can say how Biggie’s or Tupac’s career might have ended, had they had the chance to grow old and maybe wash up, sell out, or continue to build their dynasties? Even if the storytelling choices weren’t always the best ones (in my impression), even if dialogue was weak, there’s a powerful magnetism to these characters – even the acted versions of these characters, which I’d say (no offense to the actors) offers a dilution of the originals. For fans who miss their heroes, and who can put aside expecting Demetrius Shipp Jr. to be Tupac (Jamal Woolard/Biggie), there’s something here to be loved and wept over.

In a movie like this, a lot rides on how well the actor looks like, or can channel, his role. I remember in Straight Outta Compton (why didn’t I write that one up??) being really impressed with mostly uncanny lookalikes. The Eminem movie, Eight Mile, had the advantage of the star playing himself, and that one is probably my favorite of the rap biopics, maybe for that reason. From memory, I also think that both of those films featured more music, too. All Eyez did a little better than Notorious; the latter left me really wanting to hear more of Biggie rapping. I did enjoy some of the female musicians featured there, though: Faith Evans, but especially Lil Kim, who I thought was especially true-to-life as played by Naturi Naughton.

Speaking of women, I loved both all-star-cast moms! Biggie’s was played by Angela Bassett, and Tupac’s by Danai Gurira (a small role by Lauren Cohan made this a mini-Walking Dead reunion). Holy smokes – these performances threatened to steal the show. Also, a reprisal in All Eyez by Woolard as Biggie made for nice continuity; that was a good choice. I found Woolard as Biggie a more lookalike casting than Shipp as Tupac, although I have trouble explaining the latter: in some scenes, the resemblance is indeed very close. I think there was just something charismatic and inexplicable about Tupac that Shipp lacks. But I think I’m going to credit that to Tupac’s extreme charisma, rather than dock Shipp points for it, bless his heart. Tough act to follow.

Storytelling so-so; music not as plentiful as I might have hoped for; general awesomeness-as-movies a bit up-and-down. As to how much I learned about the lives of the two, well, I learned a lot I didn’t know, but can’t speak for its accuracy. I was interested to see Biggie portrayed as much more a wanton womanizer, where Tupac had exactly zero love interests until the big one came along. (He comes across as quite virtuous, IF you believe him innocent of the rape he was accused of, as the movie portrays and as he always maintained.) Tupac is portrayed as much more intelligent, ideological, full of plans and dreams and ideas, and revolutionary – although alternating with fun and hijinks. (There is a moment in Notorious that captures this perfectly: “That was Pac,” Biggie muses. “A revolutionary one minute, a thug-life motherfucker the next.”) Biggie is presented, in both movies, as just less intelligent. He doesn’t really have plans or dreams except to make money, although this is not a totally morally void ambition: he wants to provide for his kids, make things better for the next generation.

In Notorious, the question of whether Biggie had anything to do with Pac’s murder is answered: emphatically not, and Biggie was still hoping for a reconciliation. In All Eyez, the truth of what happened isn’t explained (because indeed we don’t know who killed Tupac), but Tupac does not share the goal of making up. Suge Knight is played pretty much as I understood him: a sinister, conniving figure; he could be generous but nothing comes for free. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

These movies are both far from perfect, but they were well worth my time. They’ve mostly served to further whet my curiosity. One reviewer (can’t remember where I read this) recommends I go read Murder Rap next; and who knows, maybe someday I will.


Rating: an even 6 lines for each.

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