“It was all a dream,” said Chris Wallace-aka Biggie Smalls/The Notorious B.I.G-in his original biographical rap ballad “Juicy” from his debut album Ready To Die in 1994. As far as talk of dreams go, from Martin Luther King to The Wizard of Oz, Biggie’s was relatively simple. As a kid, looking forward to the kind of success he would enjoy as a rapper seemed if not unattainable, then completely incongruent with the milieu of his criminal life in New York City. The film Notorious, by director George Tillman Jr., of the Barbershop saga and a Columbia alumnus, asks the question: “How much of that thug persona did Biggie maintain, even after establishing himself in the music industry?”
In another universe, this theme might have made for an interesting, gritty character drama starring Denzel Washington, if only he’d fit the description. But that wouldn’t have left much room for Executive Producer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to weave in all of Biggie’s hit singles. Other themes such as morality, chauvinism, oppression and being a man are all underdeveloped and do little to carry the film. Instead of defining Biggie in this way, the various hackneyed themes serve as plot devices cleverly bridging the historical gaps of his life to get from one series of events to another.
Nothing defines this movie more than its genre. It is a musical biopic like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Such films not only play into fandom, but necessitate an understanding of their subject as both historical-and because the recordings are still around-relevant icons. They forget entirely the possibility that putting on a show might be like any other job, instead ascribing the musicians’ most personal moments to their most public, with hit singles serving as the emotional climax. Just as any true fan knows the meaning behind the music, any objective observer knows these films do more for reverence than for truth.
The casting is somewhat of a mixed bag but with a strong frontman. Jamal Woolard, aka Gravy, a Brooklyn rapper himself, plays The Notorious B.I.G. And while he was passed by this Oscar season, his performance is just what the film needed. He looks and sounds just like Biggie and while believability may be the minimum for any biopic actor, his performance goes far beyond that. Through his comedy and showmanship on screen, Woolard heightens the enjoyability of the film. Derek Luke plays a mildly annoying Sean Combs, while Naturi Naughton, a singer in her own right, charms the audience as Lil’ Kim.
Angela Bassett plays Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, a Jamaican immigrant and lower middle-class mom. In a word, her performance is powerful. In four, it is over-the-top preachy. Like the cliched themes she embodies, Ms. Wallace is best when used strategically and forgotten. Early in the film she plays an interesting foil to the street life Biggie becomes involved in, but her role continues through a stint with cancer and delivers the final eulogy for her son at the film’s close. That eulogy almost ruins the ending, which otherwise would have been as fun and upbeat as one could have hoped for in a film with a dead protagonist. She is far too preachy, which ends up confusing things. Notorious garishly revels in drugs, sex and hip-hop while refusing to portray Ms. Wallace as anything less than a saint.
The second biggest inconsistency is the portrayal of the east and west coast rivalry, which Tillman shrugs off as a silly misunderstanding. Whatever the hard facts are surrounding who started what when, this film does very little to elucidate beyond what Wikipedia offers-it is not just Tupac supporters who will be left scratching their heads, but all veterans of the ordeal. The film wants the animosity to be unfounded as it besmirches the lovable characters.
Perhaps Tillman has more respect for the dead than to point fingers, but he is in danger of doing just that. In claiming no wrongdoing the film calls Tupac a loony. The bigger issue for all moviegoers is how to accept trivializing the motives leading to their deaths without trivializing their lives.
Standard issues of believability, realism, script, etc., also detract from the film’s entertainment value, though the production aspects are fairly solid. In the end, it is up to the audience to decide how much they will enjoy this film, but that may always be the case. Overall, Notorious constitutes a good time and is entertaining, if not much else.
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Now playing at local theaters