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Risks behind the camera make 'Biggie' riveting

When Nick Broomfield's documentary "Biggie & Tupac" screened at Sundance last January, it wasn't just one of the best films at the festival, it was one of the better documentaries I'd seen in years. A gripping investigation into the murders of rap rivals and former friends Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., Broomfield's feature bristles with the sort of passion and bold purpose so often lacking in contemporary nonfiction filmmaking; it plays like a suspense thriller because that's exactly what it is.

Crammed with talking-head interviews and extensive archival footage, the documentary interweaves two mysteries--the unsolved fatal shooting of Shakur on Sept. 7, 1996, and that of Wallace some six months later--to tell the story of two young men caught in the cross-hairs of intrigue and greed. Principally shot by Broomfield's longtime camerawoman (and ex-wife), Joan Churchill, with sound recording by the director, the film employs the documentarian's standard operating procedure: Talking his way through the film, Broomfield bops in front of the camera, wearing earphones while lugging a tape recorder and boom, bursting and sometimes blundering into one nerve-shredding situation after another. He elicits outrage and confession, then seamlessly patches it all together.

Sometimes the approach doesn't work, as in 1998's "Kurt & Courtney," an unpersuasive attempt to link Courtney Love to the death of her late husband, Kurt Cobain. But when it does work--as it does with this new film and earlier features such as "Driving Me Crazy"--the results are winning, even when the director is somewhat less so. Broomfield tends to rub people the wrong way, in part because the face time he puts into his documentaries makes him come across as an unreconstructed narcissist. His British accent probably doesn't help, although it's a good guess one reason so many of his American subjects give it up so readily is that, like many of their compatriots, they're suckers for that Brahmin whine.

Part of the critical displeasure with Broomfield may also be his pushiness. On American screens, documentaries generally come in two variants--the fly-on-the-wall type, and the hodgepodge sort familiar from television, in which voices of authority silkily narrate over artfully assembled interviews and archival material. Unless the camera is in the capable hands of someone like Frederick Wiseman, most of these films don't assume an aggressive or intellectually probing attitude, in the manner of classic cinema verite; they're observational not confrontational.

Broomfield's manner and methodology, on the other hand, range from the insinuating to the combative, a style that puts him more in the camp of New Journalism than HBO's "America Undercover." He's gutsy when it comes to his subjects and when it comes to his own failings, as when in the new film he admits during one interview, "Unfortunately, we ran out of sound." The admissions can sound coy, at times disingenuous, but they go hand in hand with the intently personal nature of his work, which at its best makes you understand that something is at stake beyond the filmmaker's reputation.

In "Biggie & Tupac," Broomfield's accent and pushiness (or naivete), along with his reckless disregard for personal safety--his and that of everyone else on the crew--united with Churchill's gift for seizing on images that count, make for galvanizing viewing. You don't just get to watch the director run numerous red lights in pursuit of the truth or at least the shot, you watch him ask one of Shakur's former bodyguards if he's going to turn his Rottweilers on him. (It's a wonder no one clocks Broomfield.) Surely the most frightening moment in movies this year isn't the return of Hannibal Lecter, it's the image of Death Row Records founder Suge Knight lumbering across a prison field, a walking stick grasped in one hand, a fat cigar in the other.

The scene comes late in the documentary. By then, Broomfield has conducted several interviews with people who are visibly nervous, even afraid, but nothing compares to the palpable fear that pervades the encounter with Knight. It's no wonder that the interim cameraman (Churchill refused to go) can't keep the camera from shaking.

Since its premiere at Sundance, "Biggie & Tupac" and its hypothesis about Shakur and Wallace's deaths being linked to Knight, gang members and corrupt members of the Los Angeles Police Department have come under renewed scrutiny because of a story on the Shakur murder published in the L.A. Times last month. Written by staff writer Chuck Philips, the two-part inquiry posited that the East Coast-based Wallace offered to pay Crips gangbangers a million-dollar bounty to kill his West Coast rival Shakur. Friends and family of Wallace have condemned Philips' report, and rap impresario Russell Simmons, chairman of the activist Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, has called the allegations about Wallace "inaccurate, untrue and unsubstantiated."

As far as the documentary and its essential truth go, none of this means all that much, even if Broomfield and Philips do sometimes point in wildly different directions. One of Broomfield's most crucial interviewees, former LAPD Det. Russell Poole, lays out the theory that Knight is directly behind the Shakur murder and that Los Angeles police were involved in Wallace's death. (Poole is also a source for "Labyrinth," a recent book about the two killings by Randall Sullivan.) Philips, in turn, relying on unnamed sources for his account of Shakur's murder, claims that Crips gang members orchestrated the rapper's death in revenge for an earlier grievance.

Yet, for all their differences, what Broomfield and Philips agree on is that unsavory characters are part of this story, including various law enforcement officers. In the end, at the core of each and every story concerning the deaths of Shakur and Wallace is the nightmare of the music industry itself, which tolerated and supported recording companies run by thugs, peopled by active gang members and institutionally supported by bad cops. No matter how and why the murders went down it was ugly business that earns the final blame for the deaths of these two men.

MPAA rating: R for language. Times guidelines: adult language and themes throughout.

'Biggie & Tupac'

Director Nick Broomfield. Producer Michele D'Acosta. Director of photography Joan Churchill. Picture and sound editor Mark Atkins. Music Christian Henson. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

In limited release.

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