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BIGGIE & TUPAC

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director :  Nick Broomfield
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Razor & Tie
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  April 29, 2003

Film ***1/2

There is a moment in Biggie & Tupac, amidst all the investigation and criminal theory, that really struck a chord of memory with me.  It was an interview clip with rap artist Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls or The Notorious B.I.G., reflecting on the then recent murder of fellow rapper and actor Tupac Shakur.  He had heard about Tupac getting shot, but never thinking for an instant he would die.  That was exactly what I had thought back in September of 1996…seeing the news of the shooting, for some strange reason, I just assumed he would be okay.  When it was announced he had died, I was as shocked as could be.

And six months later, Biggie would be murdered himself.  Two of hip hop’s biggest stars and one time close friends, Biggie and Tupac would later be separated by a bitter East Coast/West Coast styled rivalry that for some, was the open-and-shut case for their deaths.  No one has ever been officially charged with either murder; the whole tragic episode neatly written off as just another piece of rap music violence or gangster style killings.

But as documentarian Nick Broomfield examines the evidence in Biggie & Tupac and talks to many of the key players, it seems that there may have been a lot more to the murders than met the eye.  An 18 year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department resigned over the issue that his superiors wouldn’t allow him to investigate suspect cops on the force.  He was also suing his former employers over it.

What had he found?  Evidence that showed a number of L.A. cops in their off duty hours were on the payroll of Marion “Suge” Knight, the owner of Death Row Records where Tupac had been a star attraction.  Knight has become a larger than life figure over the years with a reputation for violence, intimidation and more, and with so many stories told about him that it’s become impossible to separate the myth from reality.

Some believe that the gang-style killing of Tupac had been carefully orchestrated by Knight with help from his cop friends and employees.  Why?  Because Knight supposedly owed Tupac some $10 million in royalties, and the frustrated artist has been openly claiming he was leaving the label and contemplating legal action against it.  By making it seem like Biggie had plotted the murder of his former friend, and later by triggering Biggie himself, a neat case of simple rivalry homicide could be presented to the public.

But that’s only one part of the theory.  As it turns out, the FBI had been monitoring the sometimes volatile hip hop community for some time, including artists like Biggie and Tupac.  When Tupac had survived an earlier shooting attempt, he was told by “strangers” in jail that Biggie had been behind it, which effectively started the whole trouble.  Biggie adamantly denied involvement, and some have suspected that those who fingered him were actually in the employ of the FBI!

As Broomfield and his cameraman wander through the ‘war zone’, so to speak, like a two man guerilla crew, they come up with some memorable footage, including that of a bag man in prison who tearfully confesses to delivering the money that paid for the fatal hit on Biggie.  Conversations with friends and family members of the fallen rappers help create images of the kind of people they had been in life.

But nothing is quite as unnerving as when they march into the prison where “Suge” Knight was serving a nine year probation violation sentence.  It brought to mind the sequence in his former film Kurt and Courtney where he was actually trained on how to confront the volatile Courtney Love.  But that was nothing compared to coming face to face with the dangerous Knight, who, even in prison and hobbling with a walking cane, was intimidating.  Broomfield’s regular camera operator refused to go in, and the temporary one kept nervously pointing the camera away.  I couldn’t really blame him.

Broomfield continues to be an interesting documentarian in that his films are about more than his subject matter, but about the pain of trying to make the film.  He isn’t afraid to show his failures as well as successes, or moments where things fall apart for him, or where he comes across looking helpless in the face of adversity.  He made both Kurt and Courtney and Biggie & Tupac against the influence of some powerful enemies…like Love did with Cobain’s music, Tupac’s mother refused permission to have her son’s songs used in the film.  Death Row Records representatives were less than helpful—all the more amazing that Broomfield ended up with “Suge” Knight on camera!

Perhaps my favorite moments were the recollections of Biggie by his mother.  They were close, and by the end of the film, she had been introduced to the former L.A. officer who was still trying to get to the bottom of the dual murders.  It’s been about six years now since Tupac and Biggie left this world behind…still a lot of questions, still so few answers…just a prevailing but fading hope that justice will one day come to pass.

Video **

An obviously inexpensive shoot didn’t lend much to the visual quality of this film, which falls into the category of good enough but far from great.  Grainy high contrast film captures Broomfield and his subjects, but doesn’t leave much for strong coloring or detail level.  Darker scenes suffer more than lighter ones.  You always know what you’re looking at, though, so the quality can be considered passable, but certainly not reference quality.

Audio **

Likewise with the audio, this soundtrack is about par for the course for an independent documentary.  Broomfield walks around with his sound equipment strapped to him, and he did a fair job of getting words down on tape (listening to a rare Tupac recording proved impossible as a helicopter covered it up).  It’s a fairly clean listen with minimal noise and dialogue easily understood.

Features ***

The disc includes a commentary by Broomfield, which is almost superfluous because he narrates most of the movie anyway, but still might be worth a listen for those who are fascinated by his methods of working.  There are also four deleted scenes, a follow-up interview with Broomfield, discographies for Biggie and Tupac, additional information on the key figures in the film, and info on the Christopher Wallace Memorial fund.

Summary:

Biggie & Tupac is an absorbing and fascinating look at two of the biggest unsolved murders in recent memory.  Nick Broomfield’s documentary does well to convince viewers that there was more to the deaths of these rap stars than what they’ve been casually dismissed as.  This is quite an eye-opener.