Hip-hop film misses beats

Nick Broomfield makes another show-all film that reveals little

The shooting deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls ('The Notorious B.I.G.') loom large in the mythos of gangsta rap. The common wisdom on the killings is that both men were casualties in the East Coast-West Coast feud between competing record companies.

Salacious documentarian Nick Broomfield Ñ who previously brought us the edifying 'Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam' and 'Kurt & Courtney' Ñ wades hip deep into hip-hop culture to find out what really happened. What he comes up with is unsurprising, occasionally interesting, but more often annoying.

Both murders remain unsolved six years after the fact. Broomfield's thesis is that Suge Knight, the dark lord behind Death Row Records, had Shakur killed when he threatened to leave the label, taking with him the $10 million that Knight owed him. Broomfield then contends that Knight had Smalls killed to light a fire under the manufactured coastal feud.

In the course of investigating his theory, Broomfield gives us the truth behind the legends, and this part of the film is indeed fascinating. Neither Smalls nor Shakur, it turns out, grew up as the hardened criminals that they played in music and on video.

Shakur was a well-liked student at a performing arts high school; Smalls (born Christopher Wallace) grew up in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. An interview with Small's mother is especially enlightening. Broomfield sits in her well-appointed living room and asks about her son's musical references to the family's living in a 'one-room shack' and often going hungry. Mom's careful response is that she believes Smalls was 'speaking as a persona he created,' and she proudly asserts that she never failed to put food on the table.

Of equal interest is Broomfield's quick look at how the two former friends' lives spiraled out of control as they started to live out the gangster characters that they invented.

It's Broomfield himself who drags down the film. As in 'Kurt & Courtney,' he is grating and amateurish. He puts himself at the forefront of the film, on camera far too often. At one point his sound equipment fails, and for no reason at all he keeps the scene in the film. It all seems self-consciously goofy, an attempt to make himself appear less slick than he really is Ñ hoping this will make us worry for his safety while dealing with all the big, bad rappers.

His conversations with an ex-LAPD officer who alleges police corruption in the investigation is padded with too many scenes in which Broomfield is rebuffed by the cop's lawyers. And when he finally does talk to Knight, he doesn't challenge the man in any way Ñ he's so deferential to Knight, in fact, it makes one wonder why he bothered with the interview at all.

Ultimately, Broomfield ends up tenaciously poking his boom mike into what appears to be the worst-kept secret in show business. Had he spent more time exploring how these two fundamentally decent men came to be swallowed up by the hip-hop machine, he might have made a brilliant film. This, however, is just exploitative and pointless.