I know it will come as a great shock to many (especially those who grew up on the mean streets of Fairview), but I’m not an unreserved admirer of rap. And ownership of Sean (then “Puff Daddy”) Combs’ “Come With Me” CD single “featuring Jimmy Page” doesn’t quite buy me an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop, I realize.
So I’m coming to first-time filmmaker Lauren Lazin’s documentary on the phenomenon that was — and still very much is — Tupac Shakur with little knowledge of the slain rapper’s work, and not knowing a great deal more about the man himself, beyond that barest facts of his shooting death and subsequent lionization by fans. In fact, “lionization” may be too weak a word here; “deification” is probably nearer the mark — at least to judge by this MTV-produced movie.
Tupac: Resurrection starts off on an alarmingly worshipful note, with the camera apparently soaring with Tupac’s spirit through the clouds, and finally treating us to the film’s title in a font that suggests nothing so much as the opening of a religious “sermonette” on TV. Upon seeing that, I settled in for what promised to be a pretty grim experience … and then the film started introducing me to Tupac himself via interview footage, home movies, family photos. It quickly became apparent that this was a man of astonishing charisma, and of deep conflict.
The child of Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur (who served as one of the film’s producers), Tupac grew up in the most startlingly contrapuntal world imaginable — unspeakable poverty on side, and the rarefied atmosphere of the Baltimore School of the Arts on the other. This was a young man who numbered among his influences Don McLean and William Shakespeare (hands up, everyone who expected to hear McLean’s “Vincent” on the soundtrack to this film). A man who studied the fine arts, and who was well-read. But likewise, a man who came to believe that the things he was learning — and that were helping to shape his own creative process — had little or no relevance to the world he actually lived in.
This realization sent Tupac down a new path — to a muse that would remain, strangely or not so strangely, informed by all those other influences. Such a division is hardly unprecedented: Louis Armstrong, among the greatest of all jazz musicians, was, after all, an avowed fan of the syrupy-sweet music of Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians. But Shakur’s dichotomy ran even deeper, since the split wasn’t limited to just his art, crossing over into every aspect of his life.
This much Resurrection manages to make pretty clear — even if sometimes only by implication. The problem is that the final film seems too determined to live up to its own ad-campaign catchphrase: “In his own words.” There’s no balance here; Resurrection is too much Tupac as he saw himself and the world — sort of “Tupac said it so it must be true” — to qualify as a well-rounded portrait. (We’re left to pick up on our own, for instance, on Tupac’s unsettling paranoia.) The film is ultimately closer to the realm of propagandistic hagiography than it is to true biography.
In the end, Resurrection will probably delight the Tupac faithful; for the rest us, it raises more questions than it answers. I would love to have seen a better tackling of the East Coast-West Coast rap conflict, and a harder look at the schism between Tupac and Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) and Combs. But in Resurrection — with primarily only Tupac’s side of the story presented — it’s unclear where reality ends and paranoia takes hold.
Resurrection is instead content to be a kind of Valentine to the slain rapper — and one so reliant on recycled MTV footage that it feels more like a VH1 Behind the Music special than a theatrical feature. Still, it’s not a bad documentary, as they go, just an ultimately unsatisfying one, containing just enough material to clue even the Tupac novice that its subject deserved something better than this one-sided cut-and-paste job.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke