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The life of Tupac Shakur could have meant so much more in focus

Photo: Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac Shakur in ‘All Eyez On Me’  Rating: R; Grade: C-

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

A sense of inevitability looms over Benny Boom’s account of the life of Tupac Shakur. Just last summer in “Straight Outta Compton,” director F. Gary Gray (“Friday”) presented a tightly focused exploration into the historic moments that brought NWA together, creating a West Coast hip-hop movement that spread across the country. Dr. Dre brought head-nodding funk, Easy-E juiced it up with bangin,’ drug-fueled urban noir, and Ice Cube preached a gospel of righteous anger at the daily indignities of the streets. “All Eyez On Me” seemed poised to offer a spirited response to that urgent call.

Tupac is a figure in the game who serves as a bridge of sorts between East and West, but he was also so much more than that. Watching “All Eyez” took me back to my own memories of these times. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania, I remember attending a Digital Underground show, where I bounced and chanted along to the goofily sexy party anthems of the Underground crew, featuring a young Tupac. As he rapped with the Underground, he definitely clowned around, but he had that special something that set him apart from the rest of the gang.

A couple of years later, when he made his big screen debut in “Juice” as Bishop, the world got its first real glimpse of what I caught in his stage persona at that random concert. Therein lies the struggle of Boom’s biopic.

Tupac embodied a complex and combustible mix of contrasting idiosyncrasies. As the son of Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), he starts off life as a man-child burdened with destiny. As a teenager, he finds a measure of comfort on the stage at a performing arts high school, where he meets and establishes a meaningful kinship with a young Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) which gets disrupted by a sudden move to the West Coast. After a brief interlude with Digital Underground, he breaks out on his own and winds up as a dual threat—shifting between music and movies—but he also starts to succumb to the trappings (and the artifice) of the public lifestyle of being a marked man.

Boom, a hip-hop music video director who has dipped his toes into features previously in more low-key, yet jazzily energetic fare like “Next Day Air,” teams up with writers Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian to provide an all-encompassing overview of every phase of Tupac’s experiences, when a more nuanced and narrowly focused approach might have been better. A life, such as this, needs meaning—especially when blessed with a presence like Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac. The first-timer bears an eerily striking resemblance to Tupac, and he acquits himself nicely overall. Early on, I found myself questioning whether or not Shipp truly had that magnetic spark, but soon decided to ignore such thinking and simply ride the wave with him. Without a doubt, he owns each and every individual scene, whether with more established co-stars like Gurira and Hill Harper or relative newbie Jamal Woolard who settles into the role of rival Biggie Smalls for a second time (in fact, he debuted as Biggie in the 2009 film “Notorious”).

The problem with “All Eyez On Me” is the messy sense of narrative sprawl that pervades the experience. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, the film feels both bloated and sadly incomplete, especially for those, like myself, who remember the barrage of news stories documenting Tupac’s every encounter and skirmish. He was a lightning rod in an age just prior to our current social media frenzy. To tell his story, to do it real justice, requires a degree of poetic license that “Straight Outta Compton” achieved with ease.

“All Eyez On Me” ultimately lacks relevance, much like any life viewed without discernment.