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A hip-hop life: ‘Tupac: Resurrection’

Iconic rapper was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1996. Reviewed by Jesse Washington

Admirable and despicable, charismatic and chaotic, Tupac Shakur epitomizes hip-hop culture. His life and death remain its defining tale.

Tupac's status was cemented by his 1996 murder in, of course, a “drive-by,” a term that rap introduced to America 10 years before “bling-bling.” Even though Tupac rapped and filmed videos about the hereafter shortly before he got there, he stubbornly refused to avoid it, choosing to revel in and with the worst of hip-hop.

If Tupac could talk to us now — and some do believe the black Elvis will rise again — he’d surely explain, with the conviction that sold 35 million records, exactly how and why he ended up shot to death in Las Vegas in Suge Knight’s BMW.

Without that perspective, though, the picture is incomplete — like “Tupac: Resurrection.”

In a culture built on creating something fresh from the debris of the past, “Resurrection” is a remix masterpiece. Using snippets of Tupac’s many, many interviews, the entire film is narrated in his own passionate words. No talking heads, no I-knew-him-whens. Just Tupac baring his soul, one more time.

Produced and directed by MTV documentarian Lauren Lazin, the woman behind the music channel’s “Sex in the 90s,” “Rockumentary” and “Cribs” features, “Resurrection” is executive produced by Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac and guardian of his legacy. Ms. Shakur’s participation ensured there would be plenty of actual Tupac songs in the movie, as opposed to the seven previous Tupac documentaries by everyone from his bodyguard to his girlfriend’s brother.

The music hits hardest in the beginning of the film, as the Vegas streets unspool to the strains of Tupac’s fatalistic “Starin’ Through My Rear View,” which appropriately samples Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Tupac’s voice then describes his impoverished New York City childhood during a blizzard of never-seen-before baby pictures. Stock footage and more family photos accompany his recollections of being raised by Black Panthers and Afeni’s move to Baltimore, where Tupac enrolled in an elite high school for the performing arts.

Insights and intelligence
Detaching Tupac’s voice from his image allows Lazin to splice pieces of different interviews into elongated conversations. Tupac’s many fans will remember many quotes, and perhaps even hear where one interview morphs into another. Newcomers will simply marvel at Tupac’s insight and intelligence.

Tupac’s legacy has been wrung so dry — it’s worth noting here that “Resurrection” was created by MTV, which also is releasing an album and book with the movie — that encountering something new is as thrilling as hearing him for the first time. But after you get past the device of Tupac as narrator, “Resurrection” provides little substantial new material.

When something fresh does pop up, hilariously, in the form of a skinny high-school Tupac wearing shin-length clamdiggers and lip-synching to Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith’s hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” you anticipate more. But you’re better off waiting for a compilation album from Suge Knight and P. Diddy.

The only other jaw-dropper is Tupac explaining why he wouldn’t take an AIDS test to do a love scene with Janet Jackson in “Poetic Justice”: “I did not disagree, if we were gonna really make love.”

For all but non-fans, the rest has been seen before, especially after Tupac moves to Marin City, Calif., catches on with the rap group Digital Underground and embarks on his solo career. This is where the “in his own words” format works worst. Instead of Tupac abruptly transforming from naive lip-syncher to tattooed Thug Lifer, we could have learned about the transition from the sculptors themselves (like Digital Underground leader Shock G and various Marin City no-names, who provide engrossing details in other documentaries).

The most frustrating part of the film comes after Tupac gets shot in New York and then convicted of sex abuse the next day. These events are what led Tupac to pour gasoline on the simmering tensions between East and West, which were rooted in New York’s rap superiority complex and L.A.’s gangsta-jacking of the music charts.

Entire books, documentaries and Pulitzer Prizes have sprung from these events, yet “Resurrection” recycles Tupac’s illogical insistence that he was set up by P. Diddy and Biggie Smalls. Oliver Stone would have won an Oscar with this material.

From there, it’s on to prison, then freedom through, ironically, Death Row Records. Tabitha Soren’s MTV interviews start to pile up here, including one where Tupac looks so angelic, so beautiful, you forget that he was consigliere to Death Row’s brutal Knight, who had two prison terms in his near future.

“Suge ain’t no gangsta,” Tupac tells Tabitha near the end. “He chillin’.” Yeah, like a villain. Just another twisted glimpse into hip-hop’s divided soul.