Fox // 2009 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 4th, 2009
No dream is too big.
To be honest, I'm not really a fan of the Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Big Poppa, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, etc). His stories of hustlin' never moved me, and his rhymes always seemed a little to scatological or sexual to keep me glued to the speakers. I'd much rather listen to his NYC contemporaries in the Wu-tang Clan or his boy Jay-Z. The latter turned hustlin' into a step on the ladder to greatness (rather than an end unto itself), while the former turned the street game into a vast mythology filled with ancient Eastern wisdom and insane raps about kung-fu. Lucky for music fans, both Jay-Z and the Wu are still kickin' in (minus O.D.B. of course), so their future biopics are still missing a third act. Biggie Smalls, however, lived large and died large, creating a perfect rags-to-riches story that's just ripe for cinematic exploration. Sadly, whether you're a fan of his rhymes or not, Big Poppa deserved better than this paint-by-numbers afternoon-special biopic.
Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard in his first starring role) is the son of a single mother growing up in the streets of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn (which film fans will remember from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing). Although his mother has big plans for him, Chris just wants to get out there and get money the only way he knows how: selling drugs on the street. To pass the time on the streets he starts to rap and gets some respect on the streets. However, all that is abandoned when the money starts rolling in. All seems well until he gets his girlfriend pregnant and gets popped for selling drugs. Bored in jail Wallace again turns to rhyming to pass the time. Once out he's got a family to support so it's back to the streets. However, he comes to the attention of one Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke, Spartan) an up-and-coming music executive who offers to develop Wallace if he'll stop dealing. Wallace takes the chance of a lifetime and it can only go up from there. But even after he's famous he still has to deal with love, fatherhood, and an increasingly violent East Coast-West Coast beef.
The thing about Notorious I simply can't get over is how darn "uplifting" it is. I mean Derek Luke as Puffy hardly speaks in anything inspiration-poster platitudes, including the groaner "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves." I know that Biggie's story is the rags-to-riches story writ large, and heaven knows that folks from Biggie's neighborhood need a hero to look up to, but this level of preach and polish just gets tiresome. On the one hand the story wants to tell us the effect that rap can have on a young man's life, but on the other we don't see what really draws Wallace to rap in the first place. In fact, the film would have us believe that he didn't care about rap, only getting paid, but even that isn't portrayed well. My description here might make the film sound more complex than it is, like a multi-faceted portrayal of a rap genius who's torn between getting money and making art. In fact, Notorious is the opposite: Wallace raps, he gets paid, he gets laid, and he gets shot. Conveniently he has an epiphany 10 minutes before the credits roll and miraculously puts all his emotional affairs in order. Even if it was true, it feels hollow. Ultimately the film fails to illuminate its subject, which is a waste.
Also, much like those old TV commercials, you might be asking "Where's the beef?" Arguably the East Coast-West Coast feud was at the center of Big Poppa's media image and may be the reason he was killed. Notorious offers no insight into this troubled time in rap history. The feud between Tupac and Biggie is played as a simple misunderstanding and no theory is put forth as to who might have shot Tupac (either at the studio where B.I.G. was recording, or the shots that killed him in Vegas) or Wallace. There was also no real context to the feud other than a montage of angry fans dissing the opposite coast. The finger gets pointed at the media (oh, that's original), but the film fails to show how the feud was created or maintained. It leaves Notorious with a very empty third act as the narrative builds to Biggie's assassination.
Speaking of the man himself, he's ably played, as are the rest of the characters. However, they're tremendously underwritten. Jamal Woolard can look the part to a certain extent and he certainly captures Wallace's charm, but he never quite captures Wallace's gravitas. I also never appreciated Biggie's flow until I heard Woolard aping it. The boy's got skills, but he can't compete with Wallace's effortless flow. As I said before, Puffy only serves to offer inspirational messages, and Derek Luke gives him a very enthusiastic performance. Angela Bassett plays Wallace's mom and she certainly knows how to be sincere, but her strength is wasted in a stereotypical role.
Finally, except for a lone verse on the soundtrack, Jay-Z is absent from this documentary and it reminds me of Louis Farrakhan's absence from Spike Lee's Malcolm X. It seems to point to all the messy material that the film couldn't deal with, and that's a shame.
Notorious does have a couple of things going for it.
One is Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim. She's as underwritten as the rest of the characters, but pulling off even a tiny portion of Lil Kim's persona takes a lot more effort than portraying any other personality in the movie. Naughton isn't afraid to bare it all, both physically and emotionally, and it shows she could go places as an actress.
The other thing the film has going for it is this fantastic Blu-ray disc. This release gives us both the theatrical cut as well as an extended version of the film which offers an extra 6 minutes of footage. The video, while not quite flawless, is very strong with good detail and little grain. Both the processed music video moments and the more naturalistic scenes look equally good. Considering this is a music biopic, the audio track has a lot to live up to and I'm happy to report that this track is bumpin'. My neighbors wouldn't appreciate me giving my subwoofer a work out, so I put on headphones to give some of the film's musical moments a spin. It was worth it, as the bass has depth and punch while keeping the highs nice and clear.
This release also serves up a host of extras. We start off with a commentary with the director, screenwriters, and the editor where they share production info and some of the film's background. Then we get another commentary with Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mom as well his co-managers. This track is a little more sentimental, but worth a listen for fans of the man himself. We then get six different featurettes that cover everything from general production to a "boot camp" to get the actors ready to play their real-life counterparts. There's a strange "The B.I.G. Three-Sixty" which offers a peek at the corner where Wallace was murdered, as well as some deleted scenes that run for about 12 minutes. Finally, there's a digital copy of the film on Disc Two.
Notorious might be fun for Biggie fans who want to see the legend of his rise and death played out in big-budget glory, but casual music fans would be better off with his music, as there isn't much to learn from this film. For those that do want to give Notorious a spin, this Blu-ray disc offers a superior presentation coupled with insightful extras.
Notorious is guilty of wasting the opportunity to tell the story of Christopher Wallace in a meaningful way.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Concert Footage
* Digital Copy