DVD Catch-Up: Notorious(7/8/2009)

            Christopher Wallace (AKA The Notorious B.I.G. AKA Biggie Smalls AKA Big Poppa) titled his first album Ready to Die, in his great album track “Everyday Struggle” he rhymed “I don’t wanna live no more/sometimes I feel death knocking at my front door” and his follow-up album was to be titled Life After Death.  Notorious, a big budget biopic about the slain rapper, opens with a clip from an interview in which Biggie laments that he doesn’t think he’ll be lucky enough to be around in ten years.  Like his sometimes friend, sometimes rival, and fellow rap icon Tupac Shakur he was a man eerily in tune with the life threatening dangers of the street life he became famous rapping about.  The ironic twist is that in the final years of his life he was beginning to find some degree of hope, but it was too late.  As a “gangsta” his life mirrored Caine Lawson, the gangster at the center of the Allen & Albert Hughes excellent Menace II Society who only realized that he truly did care if he lived or died with his final breaths, a part which ironically would have been played by Tupac Shakur had he not had a falling out with the film’s brother directors.  But Biggie’s greater legacy will be as a musician and in this field his story has as much of interest as other more established artists like Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, the only difference is that Biggies story was cut short at an age where those two musicians stories were just beginning.  This biopic wisely chooses to focus on this later story than the former and it’s a film that understands what it was about this man such a magnetic figure in his domain. 

            The film opens on that fateful night in 1997 where Biggie is shot dead in the middle of Los Angeles, but it quickly flashes back to his life as a young kid in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn.  His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) was a school teacher who did everything in her power to help young Chris (who is played at this age by Biggie’s thirteen year old son Chris “CJ” Wallace, Jr.), in this sense Biggie’s story is perhaps less sympathetic than others who were driven to the streets by worse conditions.  Still, one has to realize that Wallace entered the drug game at a very young age and at the height of the crack epidemic.  After a period of incarceration, Biggie turns his focus away from drug dealing and toward his talent for rap which he has been developing since he was very young.  He meets the famous Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), who’s an up and coming talent scout at this point, and is promised a record deal.  The incarceration of his best friend drives him to put everything he’s got into his music career.  Along the way he meets (and beds) a then unknown Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and his future wife Faith Evens (Antonique Smith), and then later meets the fellow rapper he will forever be linked with, Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

            George Tillman, Jr. shoots the film with a music video gloss that’s heavy on camera trickery and fancy editing.  This works great when Biggie is “In mansion and Benz’s, Givin ends to my friends and it feels stupendous,” but it is a lot more problematic when he’s “livin everyday like a hustle, another drug to juggle.”  These scenes scream out for a more down to earth and gritty approach and all of Tillman’s gloss really feels wrong on the streets of Brooklyn, consequently the first half hour or so of this movie really suffers.  Tillman seems to understand this problem and wisely cuts this portion short, quickly moving on to his rise to fame in which the style he’s chosen tends to thrive.

            I wouldn’t call myself a Biggie expert going into this film, but I am a fan and I feel like I’ve collected a pretty good knowledge of his life over the years.  As far as I can tell, this movie is exceptionally accurate to the real facts of the man’s life.  I didn’t see any obvious inaccuracies and most if not all of the famous moments of his life are here.  I am however a bit suspicious about the depiction of Biggie’s mother and of Puff Daddy, both of whom are credited as producers here.  Puff Daddy in particular seems to be painted both as blameless in the East Coast/West Coast feud which breaks out in the second act and as some sort of uplifting coach to Biggie.  To his credit, Puffy has allowed the film to point out some of the sillier aspects of his public personality, but the mentorship hat he’s wearing here seems a bit too good to be true.  Biggie’s mother Voletta also seems a bit too good to be true.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Voletta was and is a great woman who did everything she could in raising this troubled youth, but at times the film makes her out to be downright saintly, there are very few people in the world who are this devoid of fault or weakness.

            As one could probably guess, finding a talented, four hundred pound, twenty-five year old, African American actor with rapping abilities probably wasn’t easy.  Realizing that there weren’t any veteran actors who resembled the film’s subject, the producers went on a very public search for the right man to fill Biggie’s size fourteen shoes.  The man they found was Jamal Woolard, a real Brooklyn rapper who is perhaps most famous up to this point for being one of many rappers who have been shot outside the New York radio station Hot 97.  Woolard really does look and sound a lot like the real Biggie, his impersonation skills truly are impressive, but I wouldn’t really call this a spectacular performance.  I think this is a performance that the Academy should take a close look at, not because I think it’s really worthy of their award, but because it might make them realize that doing these sort of celebrity impersonations really isn’t as hard as it looks.  Don’t take that to mean that I think Woolard didn’t work hard on his performance here; in fact I’m sure he put everything he had into his work here and in turn puts in a very good performance.  But this isn’t the work of a master thespian and outside of his impression I wouldn’t call his scene to scene work particularly special.  Still, he mostly does what he needs to do and he even does all of his own rapping.  Speaking of the rapping, the song selection is pretty good here. 

            Many called the film “formulaic” during the initial round of reviews, but I’m not sure that’s really fair.  Its only formulaic if telling someone’s life story from beginning to end is a formula, would you criticized a written biography for taking such a trajectory?  I wouldn’t, because that’s simply the clearest way to tell someone’s life story.  There’s certainly a place for adventurous biopics like I’m Not There, but Biggie Smalls story isn’t as well known as Bob Dylan’s and such trickery would probably do him a disservice.  I know I’d certainly prefer a “conventional” to a movie like La Vie En Rose, which screws with chronology for no reason other than to pretend it’s less conventional than it is. 

            So, in final analysis, this is a pretty good example of a music biopic.  It isn’t great and it has flaws but it’s a good representation of the iconic rapper.  It probably has little appeal to those who have no interest in the subject, but those looking for a Biggie Smalls biopic will be well served.

*** out of Four

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