Everyone is loving a rap movie these days. Notorious set a high bar with its practically perfect casting, musical archaeology and comic relief. Such a success was bound to bring about a bandwagon. Straight Outta Compton was more lurid in its depictions of violence, anger and general assholery on the part of a young NWA outfit and now, as if to complete a kind of trinity- the holy ghost of hip hop; Tupac Shakur- gets his own blockbuster as well.
Unlike the quite typical ascent to rap superstardom shown in SOC/ Notorious (music being successfully used as a vent by the young and frustrated, almost as much to their surprise as anyone else’s). Tupac’s Story is one that had music and writing as a central pillar to his personal identity before it afforded him any opportunities for fame. We catch a glimpse of a well mothered if often uprooted, sensitive kid whose mindset was militarized by the struggle of his Black Panther parents Afeni and Step-dad Mtulu. That said, the film-makers seem unapologetic in their suggestion that left to his own devices, Tupac may well have focused on the arts for their own sake and not as a political weapon, as evidenced by his fairly frequent deviation from the path of raised fists in favour of women and weed.
The first time we hear Demetrius Shipp Jr channel Tupac’s stage presence is as he is delivering Shakespeare to a young classmate, Jada Pinkett. One scene shortly after sees the relationship flourishing lake-side as he reads her a poem he wrote for her- this well-documented side to Tupac stood as both complementary to and in conflict with the remainder of this public persona- (a hardened thug that has little issue with shooting people in the ass-cheek should they seem to deserve it).
From there we continue to explore the paradoxical nature of Tupac. His fierce independence and confidence, that falters at the first hurdle when he tries to sever business relations with Suge Knight (thanks to Tupac’s naivety about their relationship). The social mobiliser who could philosophise about Black Power whilst rocking a gold rope in a hot tub and a ‘gang a’ hos’. Finally, the nonparticipating, heart-broken urban commentator who penned Brenda’s Got a Baby whilst also sporting THUG LIFE, tattooed on his belly. (An acronym we learn, for; The Hate You Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody).
It’s handling of the Tupac’s paranoia around being shot in New York feels a bit skated over, although this tired tale has threatened to over shadow the work and talent of artists from both Bady Boy and Death Row records, so perhaps this is was a sensible decision to avoid predictable subject-matter.
This film perhaps does not move at the pace of either Notorious or SOC, its track choices are a bit light on the ground- opting to transmit a couple of well-known bangers with little reference to musical influences; and unlike the inflated sense of pride for young, talented and often, angry musicians, one is left with post Notorious or SOC, viewers are left feeling a little frustrated with Tupac’s potential and how much of it was wasted, not just by the Las Vegas hit men that sadly ended his story- but perhaps by his own, volatile and diverse character.
This film certainly celebrates the artist that was Tupac, but in many ways it seems to wrestle with the man.
That said, for all this- it offers a satisfying portrayal of one of our generations most important voices. It covers a huge story from NYC, Baltimore, Oakland and of course LA. It feels genuine, if not always thorough in its attempt to portray Tupac for what he was- a thoughtful, troubled, reactive and sometimes naive playboy-type who had more talent, insight and intelligence than he ever got to use- partly of his own fault.