2009, R, 123 min. Directed by George Tillman Jr.. Starring Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Kevin Phillips, Dennis L.A. White, Marc John Jefferies, Julia Pace Mitchell.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 16, 2009
In Notorious, the life of hip-hop artist Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, assumes the shape of the standard biopic formula. Almost larger than life in both his physical bearing (weighing close to 400 pounds) and iconic immortality (he was murdered at the age of 24 at the height of his success and on the cusp of the release of his second album), Wallace had the kind of life experience that seems ready-made for the “live fast, die young, and leave one helluva corpse” cinematic treatment. The highlights of this rapper’s life are all here: his attentive upbringing in Brooklyn by his single mom, the lure of the streets and the fast cash of the drug trade, the stint in jail, the women, the fresh sound of his rhymes, the transformative hookup with producer Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, et al.), and the friendship and falling out with West Coast hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur (who was murdered six months prior to Wallace). Of course, 12 years later the unsolved murders remain the biggest unanswered questions regarding Wallace’s life, and though the infamous East Coast-West Coast rivalries are touched on, the film shies away from pointing any fingers or stoking the flames and definitely doesn’t implicate any police officers (as many of the conspiracy theorists do). Notorious is indeed the authorized version of Wallace’s life and is produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace, and his former managers and executive-produced by his label producer, Combs, and his Bad Boy Films enterprise. The script by Reggie Rock Blythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker hits all the points it needs to but contributes no new layers of understanding or insight. Director Tillman (Men of Honor, Soul Food) hasn’t the chops to tease out much more nuance or shading from this highlight reel, whose events are already well-known to the public. The story is narrated from the grave by Wallace, which adds to the episodic tone whereby he relates what occurred and what was learned and moves on to the next episode. Still, the performances are vibrant and capture a sense of the individuals behind them. As Wallace, Woolard proves an excellent study, capturing the artist’s verbal style, physique, and alternating personas of seductive and cagey. He’s a newcomer onscreen, which helps us accept him filling these big shoes, but he is known under the name Gravy for his career as a rapper. Luke as Combs, Mackie as Shakur, Naughton as Lil’ Kim, and Smith as Faith Evans all turn in good renderings of their real-life counterparts, and Bassett as Voletta is her usual captivating self. The filmmakers even utilize Wallace’s actual son to portray him during his schoolboy years. Notorious won’t ever be mistaken for investigative journalism, but it will help solidify Wallace’s legacy as a hip-hop innovator while also explaining it all to those who were unaware and providing a sentimental re-creation for the legions of Biggie Smalls fans.