What is it that Straight Outta Compton does right but All Eyez on Me gets so very, very wrong?
“It was all a dream
I used to read Word Up! magazine”
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
“Started from the bottom, now we’re here
Started from the bottom, now my whole team fuckin’ here”
Drake – “Started from the Bottom”
In late 2015, after almost half a decade of false starts and creative differences, production finally began on All Eyez on Me, a biopic about the life and times of Tupac Shakur. Now, considering that fact, I’m not prepared to say that All Eyez was deliberately attempting to ride on the coattails of F. Gary Gray’s monster hit N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, from earlier that year, but its runaway success almost definitely inspired those in charge of getting All Eyez on Me out of the door to get their respective arses into gear. It may have also slightly inspired how the finished product turned out, since Benny Boom’s direction oftentimes seemingly apes the low-key flashy and swooping style of Gray’s work – both got their start as music video directors for various rappers and R&B artists – and All Eyez feels the need to creep up to the two-and-a-half-hour runtime of Compton for reasons that escape me.
All Eyez on Me is also a fucking terrible movie. A messy, aimless, often incompetent, but most importantly, relentlessly boring slog of a thing that’s somehow below the level of the George Tillman, Jr.-directed Notorious B.I.G. biopic, Notorious, from 2009 – it even (bafflingly) gets that film’s Jamal Woolard to reprise his performance as Biggie, despite Woolard being almost a decade older than before and very clearly not wanting to be here. This itself is mildly ironic since it was the modest success of Notorious that paved the way for Compton to begin its long road to the big screen. All three films take a sprawling “A to B to C to D to E to F to etc.” structure, cramming in entire life stories into their runtimes. All three films subscribe to the old-as-time Rise and Fall structure of every music biopic. All three end with a talented life being tragically ended far too soon. And all three feature subjects being played by actors who look scarily-reminiscent of their subjects in their prime – Compton even cutting out the middle man and getting Ice Cube’s son himself (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to do a passable imitation of his father.
Yet, of these films, only Compton manages to actually be great, whilst Notorious and All Eyez are “watchable” and “insomnia-currant” respectively. So why is that, then? Particularly in the case of All Eyez on Me, which very badly wants to play in the same ballpark as Compton yet wouldn’t even be fit enough to act as the latter’s weed-holder? Well, the conclusion that I keep coming back to, made up of multiple individual parts rather than the vague catch-all that nonetheless fits, is that Compton feels like hip-hop whilst Notorious and All Eyez do not. Some of this is in the tangible, potentially-stereotypical details: Compton constantly emphasises and draws attention to the dangers that its cast has to deal with every single day, whether they come from cops, gang members, or even members of their inner circle. Notorious and All Eyez, by contrast, are centred around two rappers who were killed, were figureheads for the East/West Coast feud of the late-90s, and who got death threats nearly every day, but that kind of constant danger only seeps in during the designated “Shit Gets Real” scenes that are dotted about every now and again – the Super Clean Radio Edits to Compton’s Dirty Album Versions.
Ultimately, however, it really comes down to two specific reasons as to why Compton feels Hip Hop and, not coincidentally, they also double as two tenants of any good biopic. The first is that Compton is actually about something. Both Notorious and All Eyez make the usual biopic mistake of assuming that the protagonist is automatically interesting enough to hold up an entire movie, and whilst that is admittedly a part of the biopic equation, the film can’t just be “here’s what this person did whilst they were alive.” If you’re just hitting the beats of your subject’s life, one after another, without anything more to say than “wasn’t this person great,” then all you’re doing is dramatizing a Wikipedia summary. Self-mythologizing is a key part of hip-hop, don’t get me wrong, but even there the most memorable of those songs are the ones that combine the charisma of the voice telling the story with a deeper meaning to make those words truly connect. It’s the difference between “Juicy” – in which Biggie relates his rise from poverty in the streets to successful rapper with the kind of specificity and attention-to-detail that enables the listener to understand and empathise with his struggles, and why his escape from the hood is so uplifting to him – and “Started from the Bottom” – in which Drake started from the bottom, worked in a supermarket for some unspecified amount of time, and now is mega-successful and awesome, with no details or explanations of prior struggles and therefore no reason why the listener is supposed to care.
Both Notorious and All Eyez make this mistake of minimising that struggle – All Eyez, in addition to giving less than no shits about Pac and his family’s harassment by the FBI, even pulls a full “Started from the Bottom” and relegates Pac being discovered to a cursory mention in a montage before jumping to his time at Interscope; he started at the bottom and now he’s here, deal with it – whilst Compton bothers to give time to the struggles that the members of N.W.A were dealing with on their way to fame. Racial profiling from local police officers, the difficulty in getting their “Reality Raps” heard, gang culture, poverty, the difficulty in living in late-80s Compton. Resultantly, this provides Compton with a set of thematic backbones, reasons to care about this story beyond watching people we know will become famous and change the landscape of rap music forever. Now the rise of N.W.A and its various solo players plays out against the powder keg of untreated racism that was Los Angeles in the late-80s and early-90s, finally exploding with the verdict of the Rodney King trial in the Summer of ‘92, as well as how the record industry, rather than provide an escape for Ice Cube, Eazy-E and everyone else, was ultimately not too dissimilar to the same predatory gang culture to the streets they came from.
This, for the record, is why Suge Knight works in Straight Outta Compton yet ends up feeling almost-comically out-of-place in All Eyez on Me, despite ostensibly needing to be there. In Compton, his violent, mob-like behaviour is in keeping with the theme of the record industry’s corrupt, self-serving ways; Suge simply being more open and direct in his methods compared to Priority Records and Jerry Heller. When All Eyez dedicates a scene (and it really is only just a scene) to Suge violently abusing a Death Row artist thinking of jumping ship, it feels like somebody went “Oh, yeah, Suge’s a monstrous dick, we should probably show that or whatever” because the film otherwise isn’t about that. In fact, it’s not about anything, unlike much of the best hip-hop which has something underpinning the flows and shit-talking. It’s not even about 2Pac himself, since the film, despite having a goldmine of avenues to examine the man through – his contradictory personas both publicly and musically, his history of activism, his sexual assault charges, how Death Row Records and the Quad Studios attack changed the man that had otherwise spent much of his career writing Conscious Hip Hop – it ultimately has nothing to say about him.
Which brings us to the other crippling flaw in Notorious and All Eyez. Not only does neither film have anything to say about their respective subjects, they also treat both Biggie and Pac as unassailable legends. Squeaky-clean figures of hip-hop royalty, lives tragically ended too soon because they were too good for this sinful world, torn down primarily by outside forces than anything they ever did. All Eyez even has the gall to offhandedly insinuate that Pac’s rape charges may have been part of an elaborate attempt by the government or somebody to frame him and put him away in jail. They don’t treat Christopher Wallace or Tupac Shakur as people, more like brands with soundtracks that need to be pushed to White Middle America once they’ve left the theatre. This sort of makes sense for Biggie, his having been a vital part of Big Boy Records and that interplay between tough street raps (as presented by Biggie) and shimmering commercial pop hooks (as presented by close friend Sean Combs) being unfortunately lopsided by his death – Sean Combs is, after all, a man who considers a protest song against police racism to be the perfect time to plug his expensive designer champagne. But it absolutely makes no sense for a supposedly respectful biopic of 2Pac, which is the total antithesis of the raps he made his name with.
Now, this is not to say that Compton does not also engage in sanding down the many, many, many edges of Dre, Cube, and E. Far from it. However, it is willing to view these people as, well, people. It shows them having petty squabbles, getting into fights, being casually misogynistic, brought down by their own demons as well as those around them. The film’s refusal to condemn or even comment on the infrequent misogyny and (mostly-scrubbed but still sometimes prevalent) homophobia of its cast is, at least, regrettable – and this kind of mild rewriting of history does lead to some unintentionally hilarious sequences in which Dre has to act shocked that Suge Knight might somehow not be an upstanding individual – but it is also honest. Much of the best hip-hop gives you an insight into the mind of the person making it, their prejudices and mistakes and rationales for how they think and act. And, yes, this can also be inarguably awful – hip-hop has a massive misogyny and homophobia problem, and I am in no way giving them a pass for any of that – but that realness, that honesty, is a prized commodity in rap. Which, of course, is why it’s somewhat ironic that whilst the members of N.W.A viewed the kinds of violent, morally-dubious lives they rapped about, only Eazy-E had personal experience with it; a thread that Compton quietly examines by making a point of not drawing major attention to it.
By contrast, whilst Notorious does gain points for calling attention to Biggie’s history of domestic abuse and cheating towards his wife Faith Evans, it subsequently loses those points for trying to frame those scenes as accidental outbursts based on how the world around him is trying to tear him apart, his anger merely being misplaced and that he couldn’t really be a misogynist because Biggie loved women. He really, really, really, really loved women. He just had so much love to give, you know? At least that’s better than All Eyez on Me, though, which, again, offhandedly insinuates that Pac’s rape charges were a government conspiracy. Whilst Notorious is willing to show a little of the dirt on Biggie, even if it then immediately turns around and bends over backwards to justify each individual speck, All Eyez finds the idea that 2Pac wasn’t a perfect, wholesome, truth-spitting martyr for our collective sins utterly inconceivable.
Not only is that pure easily-disprovable bullshit, it makes for a boring-ass story and a useless biopic, since we don’t learn anything about the man behind that legend. There’s no honesty, no realness, just statue-polishing. Notorious and All Eyez on Me are hip-hop in the way that late-90s rap videos are hip-hop. They’re the status, the money, the aspiration, the postscript to that climb out of the bottom, designed both to prey on the materialistic impulses of those Black folks yet to make it out of poverty, and to be a clean, marketable, friendly face of the genre to an audience of White Middle Class suburban Americans who want to be able to enjoy hip-hop without feeling threatened – those who solely listen to the beat and maybe the flow, never the lyrics.
Then again, it’s rather fitting that Notorious and All Eyez on Me are the films that stumbled like this, given their subjects. The deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, within six months of each other, were undeniably tragic events and, arguably, the logical conclusion to the violent-posturing of the East/West Coast feud of the decade, hence the gradual clean-up of Mainstream hip-hop throughout the rest of the decade (and much of the next) into mindless party jams. Further, Pac and Biggie were both undeniably talented MCs who left near-perfect records of work, still in their primes, and that’s meant that they also carry the spectre of “what if?” Proven geniuses whose lives were taken too soon, which, as is the way of artists who die young, elevated them to tragic legends. Once they died, 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. stopped being men and started being brands, brands that would (and continue to) be ruthlessly exploited by those looking to make some quick and easy bucks at the expense of the men behind them to this day. It only makes sense that their respective biopics would end up as nothing more than another extension of said branding exercises.
But Dr Dre and Ice Cube have never quite made a habit out of looking back, or, more specifically, cashing in on looking back. N.W.A quickly imploded, all of its players went their separate ways and carved out their own individual legacies. Eazy-E tragically died of AIDS in the mid-90s, both Cube and Dre effectively got out of music to become an actor and a super-expensive mediocre-headphone salesman respectively, and the specific kind of gangsta rap that N.W.A trafficked ultimately disappeared rather quickly. Maybe that’s why Straight Outta Compton, although in no way perfect, works as well as it does. It may only be warts-and-all in a very self-serving/selective memory way, but that’s still more honest and real than either Notorious or All Eyez on Me, since the two films have been swimming in nostalgia for so long that they’re incapable of viewing anything they’re about as real anymore. Even if it can be demonstrably proven otherwise in many respects, Compton at least largely convinces as authentic, as honest, as giving us some insight into these flawed real people. Which, since a lot of hip-hop is about the performer putting on a persona and trying to convince you that you’re listening to something real and true, is what makes it faithful if maybe not wholly accurate.
Callie Petch knows rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.