31 May 2009 | dee.reid
Biggie fans will love "Notorious"; everybody else, well, that's another question entirely...
George Tillman Jr.'s "Notorious," a by-the-numbers biopic about the life of Brooklyn rapper Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace (1972-1997), is sure to only please the members of his core fan-base, myself amongst one of them. I was 11 in March 1997 when Biggie Smalls was shot and killed in Los Angeles, California, just seven months after his friend and fellow rap artist Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) was shot and killed in Las Vegas; Tupac died the day after my 11th birthday in 1996.
Many thought that their murders were part of the whole East Coast/West Coast rivalry between rap artists during the mid '90s. Both Big and Tupac became the unlikely martyrs of gangsta rap and the violence that characterizes it. What's most shameful about that is that over a decade after their deaths, it seems that the hip-hop community has yet to learn a very valuable lesson.
But I'm getting off-track. "Notorious" is a well-made and well-acted movie. Unfortunately, however, it's too by-the-numbers and follows the tried-and-true methods of most biopic storytelling: it glamorizes the life of the character, goes from one success to another, and doesn't really shed anything new on the person the movie is about. Of course it traces the beginnings of Biggie's life, from growing up as a bright Catholic school student in Brooklyn raised by his loving mother Voletta Wallace (a perfectly cast Angela Bassett), to his dropping out of school at age 17 to sell crack on the streets to help feed his baby daughter, and his eventual being signed to the then-newly formed Bad Boy Records by his best friend Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke). The rest, as they say, is history.
I also forgot to mention that Jamal Woolard, as Biggie, who is also an aspiring rapper himself, is probably the best thing about this movie. He really captures the essence, and character of Big, and not only does he look like him, but he also talks AND sounds like him. And his skills on the microphone are undeniable as well. He lends some authenticity to the film's rhyming sessions, rapping to the songs of the real-life Notorious B.I.G., and he pulls it off magnificently. It's a star-making performance that unfortunately gets overshadowed by too many of the film's flaws.
The script (co-authored by Biggie's biographer Cheo Hodari Coker) skips from one success to another; that's the biggest problem with most biopics. Another problem I had was that the portrait of the main character was pretty one-sided. While I personally consider his debut record "Ready to Die" to be one of the most important and significant rap albums ever recorded - it helped return the East Coast rap scene to prominence - I'm not totally certain that he was truly one of the greatest rap artists who ever lived, especially after only two finished recordings. And I really would have liked to have seen more of Big's friendship with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), which I felt was one of the most overlooked and tragic aspects of his life during the East Coast/West Coast rivalries. (People often forget that not only were they friends early on, but they were very close friends.)
And while I'm quite certain that the sex appeal of Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) is one of the reasons for her success as a rapper, I also feel that one of the reasons she's here, apparently, is to show A LOT of skin and seem like the biggest, baddest 'ho in hip-hop (that's debatable). Big's relationship with wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) was not all that well-developed either, as was Big's friendship with Puffy, or the members of Junior M.A.F.I.A., who he helped to promote along with Lil' Kim, whom he was carrying on an affair with while still married to Faith. I also would have liked to have seen some of the paranoia and fear that gripped Biggie in the final months of his life as well, and a little bit more on the aftermath of his murder.
Like I said earlier, I'm a fan of the Notorious B.I.G. myself, and so I'm sure that I'm one of those people that would have liked "Notorious" a lot more. That's the biggest tragedy about his life and this film. His short life and violent death made him one of the most important, and tragic, figures in hip-hop. I also think it's a disgrace that not much has been done by law enforcement officials to try to solve his murder, or Tupac's for that matter, and the questions revolving around the involvement of corrupt police officers in both killings have yet to be followed up in any significant fashion by anyone.
I'm not going to be a cliché: I don't think he was one of the greatest rappers, personally, but the impact of his music on the industry cannot be denied by anyone: he helped the East Coast's rise back to the top of the rap scene in the mid '90s. As for the movie about his life, on the hand, it could have been better - a lot better.