Already the most posthumously marketed music celebrity since Elvis & Jimi, rap star Tupac Shakur gets perhaps the definitive authorized-portrait-cum-sanctification treatment in “Tupac: Resurrection.” By limiting all audio commentary to the rapper himself, feature — executive produced by his mother — nimbly sidesteps less flattering aspects of a “gangsta” career marked by controversies and criminal allegations. While more skeptical viewers may find project’s inspirational tilt objectionable, vet MTV docmeister Lauren Lazin has without question skillfully assembled an entertaining, strongly narrative nonfiction package. Pic, which screened at Sundance last January in unfinished form, is likely to attract just moderate theatrical biz before accessing a wider swatch of hiphop fans via home formats.
Beginning and ending with aerial views of Las Vegas, where the 25-year-old Tupac was shot to death in an as-yet-unsolved 1996 vehicular ambush, “Resurrection” otherwise presents a strictly chronological life story — albeit one backgrounded with larger cultural events, to a sometimes pompous degree. This is especially true toward the start, where the involvement of older family members — including Shakur’s mother– in the Black Panthers and other organizations sparks a short overview of the Black Power Movement.
The implication is that Tupac’s life was a natural extension of that revolutionary legacy. Not immune to such hyperbole himself, Shakur is later heard equating his suffering during various legal plights to Rodney King and South African Apartheid. However, in actuality, many black community leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, did not find Tupac, with his gangsta image and lyrics, a laudable role model.
His father absent, uprooted several times with his “brilliant” (though at one point crack-addicted) mother Afeni, young Shakur dropped out of school and briefly sold drugs. But he found a steadying outlet in performance. Pic doesn’t avoid showing some of the more uncool episodes in a path that didn’t always boost the later “thug life” persona. An amusing photo/video peeks at him at the Baltimore School for the Arts as a theater major; shows early hiphop gigs very much in the goofy “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” vein; reveals a professed affection for Don McLean’s tearful ’70s ballad “Vincent;” and shows close friendships with the likes of Mickey Rourke and Tony Danza.
Tupac’s first break came as a featured rapper with the Digital Underground crew. Then things happened very quickly: A demo recording got him signed as a solo artist to Interscope; 1991’s debut “2Pacalypse Now” went double platinum; high-profile film roles in “Juice” and “Poetic Justice” won him critical praise.
With fame, however, came a host of problems, many self-inflicted. On the one hand, he offered “thug life” as a positive, post-Panthers empowerment movement, on the other hand he snapped “I don’t gotta be a role model” and boasted “I play me” in regard to his psychopathic-killer role in “Juice.”
His lyrics made him a lightning rod for cultural watchdogs decrying the violence and misogyny they saw celebrated in much “gangsta rap.”
The line between art and life blurred further in the wake of various criminal charges. Some were dismissed, others not — he got 15 days in county jail for assaulting one of the Hughes brothers (they’d fired him from a film project), then served 11 months for sexual assault against a 20-year-old female fan.
Released, he signed to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, soon weighing into an “East Coast vs. West Coast” rap-world dispute with ties to gangs as well as fellow music stars Snoop Dogg, Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy (of rival eastern label Bad Boy Records). Tupac fired off highly public insults in this fracas — ridiculing Biggie and Puffy, even prophesizing his own death in a video. Smalls’ own violent demise — thought by many to be directly related — followed Shakur’s by a few months.
Since “Resurrection” is told “in his own words” (including spoken poetry and journal excerpts), it can’t and doesn’t address the myriad conspiracy theories that have arisen since these murders — which comprised the entire focus for Nick Broomfield’s prior docu “Biggie and Tupac.” This format also lets Shakur himself soft-pedal less savory aspects to his own saga and neutralize responsibility for some personal actions. Also, fact that his most controversial lyrics are never highlighted here (they rush by in brief rapped or text form, when addressed at all) overtips scale away from critics, toward self-justifying claims that he was merely “speaking … the story of my peers.”
On the other hand, included here are numerous confessedly “big mouthed” diatribes against fellow black entertainers Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Michael and Janet Jackson. Not to mention a sequence in which he repeatedly spits at a news camera, and his rant after sex assault proceedings that “The whole world should owe me an apology.”
What’s perhaps saddest about his premature passing is that Shakur didn’t live long enough to reconcile the variously idealistic, opportunistic and troubled sides to his public/private self. What does survive clearly here is the performer’s ample charisma, and his ability to address political/racial issues (homelessness, poverty etc.) with passion and intelligence when he chose to do so.
Feature includes some previously unseen material, including concert footage. Original visual/audio sources vary greatly from the very crude to network-broadcast polished. While voiceover narration’s cut-and-paste job can verge on excess (sometimes composting bites within a single “sentence”), overall 35mm-transferred effect makes for a lively, vivid mosaic that’s a credit to Lazin and editor Richard Calderon. Tech package is smoothly handled, and soundtrack-ready musical backgrounding features 58 Shakur cuts and 18 tunes by others.