Fox // 2009 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 21st, 2009
No Dream is Too Big. Sometimes, A Life Story Is.
Among the many hits and misses inside the mythos of rap, the still expanding artform has produced several symbolic gods. From old school saints like Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC to current faithful flash in the pans like Mims and Soulja Boy, the genre continues to experience the grand growing pains and blasphemous backwards glancing that helped move it from fad to foundation. In that regard, no one would deny the impact and importance of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Big Poppa, aka Frank White, aka The Notorious B.I.G. From 1994 (and the release of his debut album Ready to Die) to his untimely death in 1997 at age 24, he represented the pride, the power, and the promise of East Coast hip-hop. In fact, many still to this day point to his prominence against the then popular West Coast scene as the most likely reason why he was gunned down in a Los Angeles drive-by. Now Hollywood wants to try and explain his meaning with the decade in the making biopic Notorious, and while the film itself is quite good, the message of Wallace's genre significance gets lost in the cinematic shuffle.
As the son of Jamaican immigrant Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett, Malcolm X), young Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard) saw life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn as testing ground -- for his talent at rhyming, for his desire to make money, for his need to survive. After a few years on the streets dealing drugs, and a stint in prison for same, he vows to use his rapping skills to escape. When he discovers he's about to be a father, the drive becomes even more intense. Meeting up with record mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke, Miracle at St. Anna), Wallace changes his name to Biggie Smalls, starts performing on the local level, and soon becomes the hottest thing in hip-hop. Along the way, he starts a fruitful relationship (both personally and professionally) with soon to be star Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) before falling for and quickly marrying singing sensation Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). But it's his friendship with the iconic Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, Eagle Eye) that causes the most concern. With the East Coast/West Coast rap feud in full MTV swing, one's untimely death will predict the end for New York's new "king."
Biopics, for the most part, get little cinematic respect, and with good reason. Reducing someone's life story, in conjunction with the cultural or historic significance that makes them important, into a two hour overview seems antithetical to the purpose behind such a celebration. Audiences want depth and a clarity of understanding. These films instead offer cursory glances and frequent whitewashing. It's almost impossible to name a classic biopic -- that is, one that follows the contributions of a famous face while flawlessly illustrating both their personal and professional complexities. Usually, the titles mentioned (What's Love Got to Do With It, Ray, Sid and Nancy) apply a more "fictional" façade to the individuals involved, substituting dramatics and composite characterization as a way to get their point across. While no one is asking for a documentary, such a fact-based film appears the only way to get the truth out without resorting to focus group fallacies.
Notorious appears to suffer from many of the misgivings provided by the motion picture genre. It's lax in what was and what really is important about Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace. Never during the over two hour running time do director George Tillman, Jr., or writers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker find a way of translating the rapper's amazing lyrics and stepped up stylizing into something cinematically or culturally significant. If we are supposed to recognize why listeners flocked to Big's unbelievably complex sentiments about life on the streets and gansta gravitas, it never arrives. Instead, we get fantastic concert sequences surrounded by equally intriguing off stage material. But somewhere between the story and the song, the music and the meaning, Notorious suffers from a kind of predetermined disconnect. We recognize what's going on, but we never feel it beyond the superficial or the staged.
Still, there is something inherently interesting about Small's rags to riches tale, the way in which he persevered within circumstances that would have rocked and ruined a lesser individual. There are the standard seduction scenes of money and power, and Tillman does rely too readily on the slo-mo montage to indicate the passing of time, but the combination of mother and son makes for some initial intrigue. Both Bassett and newcomer Woolard as sensational as lost souls struggling against a tidal wave of neighborhood violence and crime. Their moments together offer a tenderness and chemistry that's hard to deny. Similarly, when Smalls takes up with Naughton's Kim and Smith's Evans, the bond is totally believable. In some ways, had Notorious found a way to marginalize the making-of a superstar storyline and stayed with the personal, we'd have something more meaningful. Instead, because of fan necessity and commercial loyalty, the people are pushed aside to make way for more challenging chart toppers.
The music is very powerful here, recreated in a way that showcases how Smalls became a true rap icon. We enjoy the various setpieces, including a crucial moment after Shakur's death when the MC lets out a lethal version of "Who Shot Ya" to an angry, uncompromising crowd. But for all the MTV media glitz, these moments aren't as meaningful as the one-on-ones between Smalls, Voletta, Kim, and Evans. Watching this insane human jigsaw unravel and reassemble itself is Notorious' biggest strength, and when you toss in a teenage baby mama with the star's daughter under her arm, the complexities are increased several fold. Of course, any real depth has to be undercut by Derek Luke's jester-like turn as the artist soon to be known as P Diddy. His Combs comes off as opportunistic but good hearted, and when you look over the list of producers and advisors, you soon realize why things are so preening and polished.
Indeed, the biggest downfall to Notorious' ability to get to the truth is the influence (and some might argue, "interference") of the names behind the production. Wallace's mother and Combs are producers and prominent names in the game acted in a technical capacity. Instead of something like Todd Haynes remarkable I'm Not There, a film which followed a fever dream ficitionalization of Bob Dylan's life to get to the meat of his mythos, this movie makes nice and then tries to tack on some heft. For what it decides to delve into, we are satisfied from an entertainment standpoint. While fluffy, the film still works. But as a dissection of ascent and descent, as a means of making sense out of the ridiculous East/West rift that may have caused the death of two substantive hip-hop artists, Notorious totally misses the boat. There is nothing wrong with taking the easy or endemic way out. But in the case of Biggie Smalls, something much more profound was required. All we have here is well intentioned mainstream appeal.
As usual, Fox provided DVD Verdict with two screener check discs, meant to emulate the three DVD set (minus the digital copy) hitting stores on April 21. While it's impossible to comment completely on whether or not this indeed represents what will be available come said street date, the studio typically does a decent job when it comes to mimicking pre-release-to-release content. Again, the third disc will be a digital copy only, so there's no need to comment further. From the technical end of things, however, such a strategy does not provide a positive spin on the sound and image. Notorious is presented here in both a theatrical and a longer, more detailed "director's cut" version. What the difference is between the two is almost impossible to tell, since this critic did not see the original when it played locally. A quick side-by-side comparison reveals minor changes, longer scenes, and a total running time of 129 minutes (compared to the original's 123).
Visually, the screener for either version looks awful, especially on a more sophisticated HD system. There are compression defects, pixilation, and other transfer issues, leaving the proposed 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture a huge digital question mark. Similarly, the soundtrack, very important to a music-based film like this, is presented in a far more professional Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The balance between dialogue and beats is excellent, and there is some nice metropolitan atmosphere in the external sequences.
Again, what Fox will finally offer contextually as part of the three DVD set remains a concern. Included on the screener discs were the following bonus features: on disc one, there are a pair of audio commentaries (available only on the theatrical cut). The first features Tillman, Jr., screenwriters Reggie Rock Blythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, and editor Dirk Westervel. As an informative play-by-play on how the creative team took on the complicated life and legend of Smalls, it's dry but insightful. The second track is far more fun. It features Voletta Wallace and Biggie's managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts. Avoiding most of the obvious elements of the film, the trio provides a more personal spin on the material as well as providing perspective both historic and human.
Disc two delves deeper into the production. There is a decent Making-of, five rather fluffy featurettes, a collection of deleted scenes, and a virtual "tour" of the crime scene which claimed Biggie's life. Among the many interesting elements is "Anatomy of a B.I.G. Performance," illustrating what it took to bring the live concert elements to life, as well as "I've Got a Story to Tell: The Lyrics of Biggie Smalls" which delves deeper into the man's music. Nothing in the material edited out of the film is all that impressive, and the rest of the Electronic Press Kit style titles provide the kind of clarity already mentioned. For fans of the film and the rap star himself, this will be a mixed bag. On the one hand, the wealth of extras highlights Fox's faith in the title. The lack of real depth, however, argues for the movie's limited appeal.
When Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were running the rap world, there was an energy and a danger that seems to be missing from today's hip-hop game. Both men were on fire and seemed destined to burn brightly and die quickly, unable to maintain such a skyrocketing pace forever. So it remains a mystery why, through documentaries and album reissues, numerous articles and official websites, no one has been able to fully explain their rise and fatalistic fall with any kind of clarity or inspired scholarship. Clearly, both men touched a nerve within a community sick of being marginalized and misrepresented, and yet neither would be seen as particularly representative of same today. For his part, Christopher Wallace remains a figure of incomplete folklore. Notorious should have filled in the gaps. Oddly enough, within its thoroughly entertaining approach, it creates even bigger chasms.
Not Guilty. While suffering from the same old biopic malaise, the story and
acting are enough to override Notorious' formulaic superficiality.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #9
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Cut
* Deleted Scenes
* Virtual Tour
* Digital Copy
* Official Film Site