Standard restroom conversations snippets after biopics include “it wasn’t like that” and “tell me something I don’t know.” Notorious (which opens this Friday), the new film recounting the life and death of rapper Chris Wallace aka Biggie Smalls, strikes a balance between these two complaints while remaining lively and fair. Free of speculation about the mystery of the rapper’s death, and the inner realms of his psyche, Notorious is a love letter to hip hop’s good old days, and seeks to explain why they got so bad.
Our story kicks off in do-or-die Bed Stuy, with the requisite corner freestyle battles and street wear, plus an unhealthy dose of crack cocaine. Our young hero, played by Biggie’s real-life son, makes a go of it as a drug dealer, keeping his extracurricular secret from his feisty single mom (Angela Bassett). Without ever losing his baby fat, grown up Biggie (James Woolard) winds up in the slammer and turns his attention to writing rhymes — which before were just “some chick on the side, while drug-dealing was my wife.” Biggie emerges to the sight of his new-born baby daughter, and quickly learns via a young producer named Sean “Puffy Combs” (Derek Luke) that there’s money to be made in the rapping game. Amidst riotous first shows, shimmy-inducing studio scenes, and liaisons with the artist soon to be known as Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), Biggie decides that he’d rather rap about the average guy from the street than be him.
The rest is as seen on TV: Biggie gets bigger; mo money, mo problems. Tupac gets mugged while Biggie and Puffy are upstairs recording, and blabs to the press that they’re the ones behind the violence. Then he raps about sleeping with Biggie’s wife. East-West drama ensues, and a general sense of paranoia mounts until it explodes with Biggie’s death after a Vibe Magazine party in LA.
What you can expect from this film is an exciting, nostalgia-inducing series of snapshots from the salad days of commercial hip-hop. But as the first ever big-budget rap biopic, it skimps on the bio. Yes, we get the events of Chris Wallace’s life, but beyond the albeit fascinating facts, there’s little to engage our imagination. Biggie is a different breed than the stars of today’s scene, but watching the film, we’re never told who he is. The character’s fuzziness might be due to Notorious‘s production team which, headed up by Wallace’s mom Violetta and P. Diddy, lacked the perspective to delve deep into his mercurial nature. First-time actor James Woolard delivers Biggie’s punchlines too slowly for them to be funny, causing the Brooklyn rapper to come off as a lovable oaf and a bit of a simpleton.
By contrast, the most magnetic and complicated characters is one of Biggie’s women. Lil’ Kim jumps on top of the big man at the front end of the tale, and hitches on for his ride to the top, suffering no shortage of emotional trauma. We see the scowling character onstage shortly after Biggie’s marriage to Faith Evans, bubbling over with furor, sex and determination, spitting her nasty lyrics. As Naughton lifts up her black fur-lined negligee we get a glimpse of paradise — and biopic acting at its best. (Interestingly enough Lil’ Kim has come out publicly opposing the film.)
The filmmakers incorporated archival footage throughout: real-life scenes of interviews, performances and the electric celebration reels from his boom box funeral procession through Brooklyn. Using the footage was a gamble, as those gritty shots tended to overtake the film’s studio takes, but by triggering the nostalgia cortex, Notorious fulfilled a biographical film’s most noble purpose: making audiences thirst for more information about the people and events portrayed.