SPOILER ALERT !!
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Vern is one of my very favorite Internet writers about anything, much less movies. A reformed outlaw who channelled his energy into writing about films after his last stint inside, he’s been a constant presence on the web for the last few years, and he’s got a voice all his own. Here he is with a look at the new documentary from the always controversial Nick Broomfield:
Dearest Harry and Moriarty,
It has been a while since I’ve had my works printed on your page there (ain’t it cool news) but this time I got somethin that I think will move your heart. I know how much Tupac and Biggie Smalls mean to you young people today so I’m sure both of you are very anxious to see BIGGIE AND TUPAC, the new documentary about them from Nick Broomfield (who directed the Heidi Fleiss picture and maybe more in this vein, KURT AND COURTNEY). Because Tupac means to a young man like Harry or Moriarty the same thing Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash meant to their dads, only with more tattoos and brighter colored suits.
This is the story of Tupac and Biggie, who started as friends, then had a rivalry, then both were murdered in what was seen as the culmination of an “east coast, west coast” rap feud. It is told through photos, blurry archival video, but mostly Broomfield’s usual style of interviews, which often come as a surprise to the interviewees. He talks to many friends of the rappers, bodyguards, police, witnesses. The obvious reason why this is an important story: these are two of the biggest stars in music, they were murdered less than a year apart, and neither of their murders have been solved.
How is this possible? If Carmen Electra and some dude from ER got murdered, do you think they’d just let the case sit there and collect dust? I think the shooters would have their death certificates on Access Hollywood by the end of the week. But America doesn’t treat rap stars that way. David Letterman made fun of Tupac in his monologue for the days he sat in a hospital dying. And there’s a reason why they don’t want this case solved. More on that in five paragraphs.
Anyway, the movie. It starts by establishing a little background on Tupac and Biggie which might surprise you. You might know Tupac went to a fancypants high school for the performing arts – wait till you see the school, and the goofy white dude who became a father figure to him. Biggie went to a private school too. They say he was protected from the street violence he rhymed about, and his mom says that the guy who grew up in a “one room shack” in his lyrics musta been somebody else. His mom, Voletta Wallace, is the strongest presence in the movie – a smart lady with what sounds like a slight African accent of some kind, who talks lovingly about her son’s poetry and is able to round up some of his friends to talk to Broomfield. They seem like they would do anything for her, even talk about Biggie’s death.
Without her help, though, most people don’t want to talk. One of Biggie’s childhood friends talks to Broomfield in a grocery store, and claims that the stories about him selling crack aren’t true. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not. Either way, the movie argues that these two weren’t exactly the thugs they portrayed themselves as in their lyrics, but were definitely gifted men with magnetic charisma that drew people to them. But then there was that Suge Knight dude.
See, Suge Knight is the gangster turned football player turned CEO of Death Row Records, the label that signed up Tupac after he got out of prison. Suge is a gigantic guy with a gentle voice, known for smoking cigars, for decorating himself and his office red, the color of the Mob Piru Bloods he grew up with, and for maybe or maybe not hanging Vanilla Ice off a balcony to convince him to sign back the rights to “Ice Ice Baby” to the dude that actually wrote the lyrics. He made the brutal competition of the record industry literal, taking part in many beatings, extortions, threatening people, pissing into a champagne flute and making people drink it. So it’s not all that far-fetched when the movie argues that he may have orchestrated the murders of both Tupac (who he owed millions of dollars, and who was planning to leave the label) and Biggie (whose murder looked like a retaliation for Tupac’s, to draw the blame away from Death Row).
Believe it or not I know a thing or two about all this crap. For example the MC is the guy who raps, the DJ is the guy with the record player.
Actually, I do know a little bit – I saw WELCOME TO DEATH ROW, a documentary about the history of Death Row Records that pretty well proves it was funded by drug money. And I’m sure Harry and Mori have read LAbyrinth, the much more detailed book about these same murders, and how they tie into the LA Rampart scandal. It’s like a modern LA CONFIDENTIAL starting with a fatal road rage incident between two dudes who turn out to both be cops, and leading into the biggest scandal in LAPD history. The book centers on Russell Poole, head detective in the Biggie murder case, who is prevented from investigating ties between LA cops and Death Row Records, gets removed from the case, retires in disgust and joins Voletta Wallace in a lawsuit against the police (still pending). The book is being developed into a movie, and it could be a great one, but they’d need Billy Jack to help them or something because whoever made it would be harassed by the police and Suge Knight every step of the way.
BIGGIE AND TUPAC interviews Poole who (without the benefit of all the evidence in the book) argues his convincing theory – that both rappers were killed by police working for Death Row. This is his answer to the question I asked before, of how two high profile cases like this could stay unsolved for so long. But don’t think this is another KURT AND COURTNEY, which had a Kurt-Cobain-was-murdered theory that made you wonder, but didn’t really convince you. This one is well documented. There were plenty of cops working for Death Row. Two of them were convicted of a bank robbery (this fact apparently isn’t as widely known as it ought to be – it made much of the SIFF audience gasp). Another one, busted on smaller charges, is interviewed in the movie, and he reluctantly admits that cops working for Death Row had to overlook “certain things.” Later he even says, after alot of backpeddling and beating around the bush, that he believes Suge Knight arranged both murders.
It’s all very interesting, but this isn’t the shocking part of the movie. It goes deeper than that. What made my jaw drop was when they showed FBI surveillance photos of Biggie and the owner of his record label, the dude from MONSTER’S BALLS. It turns out the FBI was following them, spying on them, taking pictures of them. And remember, this was before 9-11 proved that it was our patriotic duty for us to give up all of our civil liberties in the name of freedom and democracy. This is when the movie gets real creepy. Broomfield tries calling the FBI agent who took the photos, who admits he was spying on the two, and won’t say what it was for, claiming it’s an ongoing investigation. Broomfield casually drops some astounding information that I hope someone will investigate further. He says there was a Senate subcomittee to come up with ways to stop hip hop. Most people don’t take it seriously when rappers compare themselves to the Black Panthers or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but apparently our government does. Because here they are spying on rappers, and creating a Cointelpro type program to create hostility among them. In fact – and I really wish there was more on this – the movie drops a complete shocker that, if true, means that the entire coastal feud, the reason why rap is considered dangerous, was actually caused by the FBI, because they thought rap was dangerous. You see, Tupac was shot and robbed in a recording studio one time. He said in interviews that strangers in prison told him didn’t you know? It was Biggie’s homey that shot you. This is what made Tupac hate Biggie and Puffy, claim he slept with Biggie’s wife, etc. It is the whole reason why east coast and west coast rappers started to hate each other and threaten each other’s lives.
But, according to Broomfield, those strangers in prison who gave that information to Tupac were working for the FBI, trying to create dissent among rappers.
(More gasps in SIFF audience.)
I really thought this was a great documentary. Some of the poor quality video footage is hard on the eyes, but if it’s all you got it’s all you got. I saw another documentary about Tupac and I saw WELCOME TO DEATH ROW but this one is way better. Less talking head interviews, more interesting people, more new information. This kind of gives something away, but Broomfield even managed to interview Suge Knight in prison (a hilarious scene). Not surprisingly he won’t talk about Tupac, or give the rights to his music. But Biggie’s mom gave the rights to his music, so it’s halfway better than KURT AND COURTNEY. (Maybe Suge could give the rights for Tupac’s music on KURT AND COURTNEY, and Courtney could give the rights to Cobain’s music on BIGGIE AND TUPAC, and then we could… well, I guess that wouldn’t work.)
Now even if you don’t like rap music as much as me, Harry or Moriarty, this is a movie to see. It’s more of a true crime story anyway. Like all good documentaries, it has fascinating characters and settings, alot of laughs, and of course the emotion that comes from a movie about two people who died too young. (There was at least one guy in the theater crying, and even while you’re laughing you have a strong feeling of tragedy.) Broomfield isn’t like the Maysles brothers, or other documentationists who stay out of the picture. He’s more the Michael Moore type, the guy right there in the shot, wearing his headphones, trying not to look out of place as a scrawny british guy in the middle of the yard, looking for Suge Knight. This works for comic effect but it also helps him get interesting statements out of his subjects, when he tries to act naive.
So you get a great story about two really interesting people and the bizarre circumstances that followed them in life and death. Don’t worry friends you won’t be disappointed. Good job Nick Broomfield, and thanks for prying into this place where some people don’t want to look.
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/12406
View the archived Ain’t-It-Cool-News Talkback
June 3, 2002, 6:09 a.m. CST
Jeez, Broomfield really jumps in with both feet on these things,
by Cash Bailey
I thought KURT AND COURTNEY was possibly the meanest, most spiteful piece of shit I’d ever seen, but this topic really sounds like one that someone, ANYONE just needed to shed any amount of light on. I hate rap music (apart from the occasional Cyprus Hill record), but there’s no denying the ‘car crash’ fascination of the rap world and those who inhabit it. This film won’t come anywhere near me, but I’ll be sure to catch it on video. I can’t wait for Broomfield’s O.J. Simpson film, which I’m sure he must be planning.
June 3, 2002, 7:10 a.m. CST
Ah Rap, that’s the one where you talk over someone else’
This sounds like a lot of fun, in a prurient schadenfreude kind of way.
June 3, 2002, 7:18 a.m. CST
broomfield = awesome
yes, this real tv, guerrilla camera type of thing is very appealing and visceral…..intellectual, brash, incisve and intropective, the perfect antidote to American phoney glitz……. Nothing is feigned or poised and the outsome is uncertain. Its real and we watch him and his camera run around on an interstate .When he took the microphone at the ACLU conference when C.Love was a guest speaker is a CLASSIC moment. Esp. when you see how rude and manipulative she was to other reporters. He has guts. Here is another good review of this, by the possibly the best news source on the planet: http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,3605,690362,00.html
June 3, 2002, 8:14 a.m. CST
Sounds interesting – and also sounds like there is a little more to the story than what “Behind The Music” had to say about it…..I will definetely check this out at some point.
June 3, 2002, 8:22 a.m. CST
Hiedi’s documentary was incredible
i saw the one broomfirld did on her a few years back becasue i always thought she got jacked on that deal. It was thought provoking & really well put together. I cant wait to see this one!
June 3, 2002, 9:26 a.m. CST
I’m already interested
Because no one has yet to give a really in depth look as to the lives of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, without being somewhat biased while doing so. People can bitch on and on about how they hate rap and how it’s evil, violent, etc. True, a lot of the guys into the rap game are basically using that as an alter ego to sell records, but a lot of them have lived the life, and this has been the only outlet to express it. You may despise rap, but somebody’s obviously willing to listen if it’s gotten so much attention from fans.
June 3, 2002, 9:27 a.m. CST
2pac and biggie both die.
June 3, 2002, 9:55 a.m. CST
Not all rap is gangsta,
and not all of it is “talking over someone else’s song” a la Pap Doody or whatever that rich middle class hack calls himself these days. Seriously, try finding out about a given subject before you smugly shoot your mouth off, boys. I’m not one of those sad white guys who pretends to be from the hood, but Public Enemy, Spearhead, Grandmaster Flash, Jurassic 5 and the Tommy Boy greatest hits boxed set, among others, take pride of place in my record collection next to Dylan, the Velvets, and the Stooges. This movie sounds very interesting; more conspiracy theories and guerilla documentarism from Broomfield are always welcome, and despite my views on gangsta’s destructive and dangerous internal fueding, the loss of someone as angry and intelligent as Tupac is always a shame. If you think he was just another “ho’s, 40s and gats”-type rapper, you should read the article Mikal Gilmore wrote on him in his book “Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Well worth it. Certainly, that typical gangsta shit was part of his repertoire, but at the same time he realised how pointless and self-defeating it all was. Of course, I’m shocked (shocked!) that the US government would do things this film implicates. Don’t want to bring up the whole 9/11 thing, and genuinely don’t want to be accused of disrespect towards those who suffered, but it seems to me that certain far-right factions of the state department and cabinet are using it as an excuse to legitimately implement the curbing of civil liberties they’ve clearly been keen on for some time. Great way to safeguard freedom and democracy, fellas. “To save the village, we had to burn the village.”
June 3, 2002, 11:12 a.m. CST
“Ayo my quality control, captivates your party patrol”
Absolutely, not all hip-hop is misogynistic, violent nonsense. De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest are two of my favourites.
June 3, 2002, noon CST
I never pictured the aint it cool guys (harry especially) to be the huge rap fans they are in this review.
June 3, 2002, 1:33 p.m. CST
i’ve heard of theories like this
and i believe it to be true. I want to see this documentary, too. I saw Welcome To Death Row and it was pretty interesting but it didn’t seem to be as hard-hitting as this one sounds like it is.
June 3, 2002, 1:34 p.m. CST
to Orion’s Angels
The epic 3 hour movie you’re talking about should be called ONCE UPON A TIME IN COMPTON.
June 3, 2002, 1:55 p.m. CST
heheheh He said “Monster’s Balls”
That made my day.
June 3, 2002, 3:55 p.m. CST
Another point of view from an audience member
I watched the documentary as well yesterday afternoon and, to be concise, it’s NOT a good film. First of all, Broomfield brought almost nothing new to the table in way of information. There’s been several news segments (specifically a recent episode of PrimeTime Live) and TV docs which have detailed the LAPD and FBI links to this case which much more skill. Also, Broomfield gets sidetracked with some of the
June 3, 2002, 5:14 p.m. CST
I saw the frontline that tied the LAPD, Death Row, and the Blood
Scary stuff. They engaged in bank robberies, and murder to further their label.
June 3, 2002, 7:35 p.m. CST
Looking forward to this
It will be playing at the Florida Film Festival coming up and I can’t wait to catch it. Looks very interesting.
June 3, 2002, 10:13 p.m. CST
Through every dark night….
by Darth Kal-El
Wow i havent heard about this film at all!I am a huge fan of both biggie and ‘pac and this sounds very interesting.Rain dog i appreciate you beating me to the punch and pointing out that not all rap is ‘talking over someone else’s song'(what a fuckin ignorrant comment,BTW)Some artists rise above the common element and break the mold. I believe both pac and biggie were 2 such artists. 2pac’s awareness of his own mortality and his questioning of where he wo9uld end when he took his final breath are nothing less than genius. definately 2 people taken too soon. in closing, the entire quote from my subject line goes like this-“I know it seems hard sometimes but remember this,through every dark night there’s a bright day after.So no matter how hard it gets,stick your chest out,keep ya’ head up and handle it!”
June 3, 2002, 10:18 p.m. CST
to future boy
I can understand why you didn’t like the movie but I disagree with some of your points. Mainly, you gotta admit that there IS new information in this movie. I agree that it is not as detailed as the many other studies of this case (I don’t think it’s trying to be) but read the review by the author of LAbyrinth, who was blown away by the scene where Biggie’s bodyguard identifies Harry Billups’ photo. He says he can’t believe it was not the LAPD or an LA journalist who made this connection, but some documentationist from Sussex. Secondly, the colorful characters. While I did think the scene you mentioned was one of the weak spots, otherwise I think this is all ABOUT colorful characters. That’s what makes a documentary like this work in a way that a book can’t. You get a different view of Russell Poole when you see Elvis on his tv or officer Mackie when you see the intense looks on his face as he tries to get out of admitting something.
June 4, 2002, 8:18 a.m. CST
A little reminiscient of “Strange Days.” Weird.
June 4, 2002, 11:13 a.m. CST
to Evil Reader
First of all, I want to make it clear that the conspiracy angle is only a small part of the movie. They don’t go into it much or make a big deal out of it. That was part of why it was so amazing to me, they just mentioned it casually like everybody knew about it. Second, the FBI doesn’t exactly talk to Broomfield. The agent answers his cell phone and keeps asking “Who is this? Where did you get my number?”… when you see the movie you’ll understand how Broomfield caught him off guard.
June 4, 2002, 5:16 p.m. CST
Rap is Cool!!!
I like MC Hammer and Young MC. There are both quality artists. Rap is so cool. I love it when they put the smack down.
June 4, 2002, 5:49 p.m. CST
Where is their documentary? Huh? One of them died with a donut down his throat. Don’t you people care? I think Suge Knight killed him as well.
June 4, 2002, 8:03 p.m. CST
Let’s just get this out of the way first
Compare Tupac and Biggie to BOB FUCKING DYLAN!! Yeah I’m not a rap fan or partial to the whole urban/hip-hip culture thing, but still, that’s like comparing…hell i can’t even think of a ridiculous enough comparison. The first time I saw tupac he was dancing around with a fade haircut while that freak in Digital Underground sang, “the humpty dance.” Yeah what a poser he was. I don’t even care enough to mention that fat guy. I don’t know anybody but snot-nosed little punks and posers who like rap. Tupac and Biggie were not important artists. With very few exceptions rap is just garbage. Admittedly, a lot of other music is also. The whole rap power struggle thing is interesting to people who watch trash like Jerry Springer I guess. Might a movie about the subject be interesting? Perhaps, but not because of the parties involved.
June 5, 2002, 2:55 p.m. CST
Weird- I think the last time I posted here it was to bitch at some anti-hip-hop flamer, whatever, it’s old news. Everyone knows rock music is irrelevant anyway (save for the White Stripes, but let’s face it, they’re not exactly Nirvana or Zeppelin) ANYWAY…. Rappers usually have more than a couple of names they go by (Eminem/Slim Shady being the most obvious right now). Usually they do this to allow themselves more freedom musically that their popular image wouldn’t allow. In Pac’s side project; The Outlawz- every MC in the group had the name of a different Dictator or Political figure. Idi Amin, Kadaffi, Mussolini etc… 2pac’s chosen moniker was Makaveli(yes, that’s how he spelled it, this iz hip hop after all). Niccoli Machiaveli was a 16th century italian political genius who wrote, AMONG OTHER THINGS, about the benifits of faking ones own death to decive your enemies. Why does this matter? He’s dead right? Well grab $15 out of your spider-man piggy bank, go buy a copy of Makaveli’s “The Seven Day Theory” (Pac’s 1st posthumous album) and prepair to piss your pants when you hear the very first sound on the album. If you’re too lazy and/or white to buy it, just go to one of the innumerable 2pac conspiricy pages. They’re all ghetto as hell, but some (read: some)of the info they have will terrify you into tattooing THUG LIFE across your chest. I did, and I used to be in musical theatre for god sakes. -Tripfontaine
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.