Friday, September 3, 2021

Nick Broomfield's Repeated Attempts To Crack the Biggie & Tupac Murders

You know, there are like a million feature film posthumous documentaries about Biggie Smalls and 2Pac:

  • 2001's Tupac Shakur: Before I Wake
  • 2002's Tupac: Thug Angel
  • 2003's Tupac Resurrection
  • 2003's Tupac 4Ever
  • 2004's Tupac Vs.
  • 2006's Remembering Makaveli
  • 2006's So Many Years, So Many Tears
  • 2007's Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life
  • 2008's Notorious B.I.G.: Business Instead of Game
  • 2009's Tupac: Reckoning
  • 2009's Biggie Smalls: Rap Phenomenon
  • 2011's Tupac: Thug Angel 2
  • 2015's Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders
  • 2017's Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.
  • 2021's Biggie: I Got a Story To Tell

And that doesn't even include their segments in Beef or other documentaries where they're just part of a larger story (Can't Stop Won't Stop, Inside Death Row, etc etc), or episodes of series like Autopsy or Unsolved that've covered the crimes that took their lives.  A&E ran a whole miniseries called Who Killed Tupac? in 2017.  Raise your hand if you've seen them all.  Hmm... nope, I don't believe you.

Anyway, there's two in particular I want to write about today, both made by the same man nearly two decades apart: Nick Broomfield's Biggie and Tupac from 2002 and his latest, 2021's sequel: Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac.

Nick Broomfield is an interesting character.  He started out in UK during the 70s making quite good, earnest films like Juvenile Liason and Behind the Rent Strike.  But he started slipping into trashier territory (Chicken Ranch), and his late 80's doc, an authorized behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway show that fell apart before it ever got performed, turned him into a different type of filmmaker.  The only way to salvage his film about a show that wound up never existing was to make himself and the disaster around trying to make a movie without a subject the actual subject.  So there's lots of himself on camera, recording his phone calls about the budget and arguing with the show's producers.  Contemporaneously, he and Michael Moore popularized that kind of semi-autobiographical journey-to-get-the-story documentary, where there's more footage of them being kicked out by security guards than actual interviews.  But, with his bent towards trashier subject matter, he wound up going the more tabloid route, making films about Heidi Fleiss or Sarah Palin where he's really the star.

But his films are still often quite compelling.  It's hard to say what his two documentaries about serial killer Aileen Wournos are about, exactly, but they're fascinating.  And you can see how slightly more credible and establishment-friendly filmmakers like Louis Theroux were kind of born out of his legacy.  So there might be a billion Tupac and Biggie documentaries fighting over the same scraps of legacy footage, but Nick's are unique.

Tupac and Biggie starts out with Nick being refused an interview with former police detective Russell Poole, who he explains retired over not being allowed to investigate fellow LAPD officers possibly involved in the murders.  Broomfield travels back and forth between NY and LA, looking like a bit of a sad sack carrying around his boom mic and sound recorder trying and failing to insert himself into the story.  Lots of footage of their neighborhoods is shot in passing through his car windows, and we get scenes where he walks into a barber shop asking if they knew Biggie and they tell him they don't want to be filmed.  He goes to a supermarket where Biggie worked as a kid and clumsily asks, "was he a good, uh, bag packer?"  He tries to buy unreleased 2Pac songs off a guy on the street, but the cassette breaks so we never hear what was probably a scam in the first place.  And he consistently mispronounces 2pac's name ("two pack") through the entire film.

Still, Broomfield eventually gets some credible interviews.  He asks his mom if his reference to growing up on a one-room shack in "Juicy" was true, and she tells us, "oh, well, to me, that's a part of an alter-ego, that's the rags-to-riches person that he wants to sing about."  Lil Cease turns up later, and they do end with a prison yard interview with Suge Knight, but only with the understanding that he wouldn't comment on Biggie or Tupac, and merely deliver his message for the kids (which boils down to, essentially, "people make mistakes").  Broomfield doesn't wind up with much evidence at all, or put what commentary he is given under much scrutiny; but he eventually lands on a theory based from the small handful of ex-cops who would talk to him: that Suge had some off-duty police officers perform both hits.  And sure, maybe, but it's pretty much all speculation and conjecture.  There's a lot of talk about highly valuable, damning documents that never quite turn up.  Frankly, it's not one of Broomfield's better films.  It's kind of boring, because it feels like Nick is never making much headway towards his goal, or even facing interesting opposition.  He just spins his wheels a bit then calls it a day.  So I was honestly quite surprised to hear he'd returned to the subject for a sequel, which is still playing in theaters now.

In the opening of Last Man Standing, Nick explains that since Suge has been put away, "people were now opening up to things I couldn't get answered before."  And... I guess?  We've got a lot of low level gang bangers eager to talk about how criminal Death Row Records operations were, but not so much about Biggie or Tupac.  It's all anecdotes from former bodyguards and ex-girlfriends about how Suge had one girl beat up another girl in his office, or bodyguards pretending some guy in a club had a gun just so they could rough him up and take his chain.  He doesn't really talk to any major players.  Suge's message was his biggest get in 2002 (and he replays that whole segment in this film), and this time I guess it's Danny Boy.  He doesn't have much to share besides background on Death Row, but at least Nick got him to come in to the studio.

Yeah, interestingly, this documentary takes a different form.  Rather than lots of footage following Broomfield down streets and into offices, this is mostly talking heads-style sit down interviews.  And there's lots of recycled footage from the previous film.  It isn't until about an hour in that we get to the night Tupac was shot.  Broomfield's theory has changed to a rival gang member having killed him, though he still thinks Suge had ex-cops kill Biggie.  In fact, he basically just replays Poole (who has since died after the first film) making the same allegations.  In terms of new revelations into the crime, I'd say Broomfield hasn't uncovered any big, new evidence or noteworthy information.  The point of this film seems to just be to make a correction to his first film, bringing it up to date with the current data and theories.  That's fine, but I don't think any of Broomfield's output is a particularly crucial source of information in these crimes, so I'm still left feeling a little puzzled as to why he felt compelled to revisit the topic.  If you trim away all the repeated footage, old clips and tangential filler, there's barely one documentary's worth of movie between the two.  But at least it feels like Nick's edged closer to the truth over the years.  Combined, the pair of films at least leave you with a decent overview of the facts as we know them.

It might be worth mentioning, too, that the Biggie and Tupac DVD features an audio commentary and interview by Broomfield, plus almost 45 minutes of deleted scenes.  But considering the large amount of padding left in the film, I can just imagine how inconsequential what they cut out is.  Actually, some of it's probably in Last Man Standing.  I'm sorry to say, even if you have a keen interest in the murder of Tupac and Biggie, and/ or consider yourself a Nick Broomfield fan, you probably shouldn't waste your time with either of these efforts.  There are plenty of other films to choose from.