Top critical review
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flawed but compelling biography
on June 21, 2009
The biopic "Notorious," directed by George Tillman Jr., tells of the life and career of Notorious B.I.G., the gangsta' rapper who was gunned down on the streets of L.A. at the age of twenty-four. B.I.G. began life as Christopher Wallace, a kid being raised by a single mother in Brooklyn who, despite her best efforts, was unable to keep her son from falling prey to the destructive influences of life on the street. For by the age of twelve, he had already begun dealing drugs and, by seventeen, had dropped out of school and served time in prison on a weapons charge. But it was his talent for rapping - for putting into words and music his reflections on what it meant to be a black man living in the inner city - that brought him to the attention of Sean "Puffy" Combs, founder of Bad Boy Records, who signed Wallace, now known as Biggie Smalls, to his first recording contract.
Soon, B.I.G. was a major figure in the gangsta' rap scene, adored by his fans, hated by his enemies and partaking in the fruits of all that the "high life" of a mass market celebrity had to offer: namely, wealth, fame, fashion, women, and an unlimited access to guns and drugs. But as with all such tales, it would seem, Biggie ultimately found himself on an irreversible slide towards self-destruction, culminating in his assassination on Wilshire Boulevard on March 9, 1997, a victim, in part, of the life he lived and of outside forces he was simply unable to control (his killers, incidentally, were never identified).
"Notorious" is less interesting for the admittedly rather predictable cautionary tale and domestic drama it relates than for the glimpses it affords us into the hip-hop and gangsta' rap scene of the 1990s. The sounds and fashions of the culture are successfully recreated on screen, backed by generous helpings of B.I.G.'s music that come in the form of stage performances and background accompaniment for much of the action.
The film really hits its stride when it focuses on the famed and ultimately bloody feud that developed between Bad Boys Records on the East Coast and Death Row Records on the West, whose figurehead, Tupac Shakur, came to believe that B.I.G. had a hand in a botched attempt on his life. This real-life thug opera that played itself out in the media ultimately turned deadly when, first, Tupac, and then B.I.G. himself met similar fates at the barrel of a gun.
The movie is most notable for the performance of rapper Jamal Woodard in the title role, who not only looks amazingly like the original Biggie but manages to sound quite a bit like him as well. It is Woodard who makes B.I.G. both the larger-than-life figure and the regular human being he needs to be to be believable. He receives strong support from Derek Luke as Combs; Anthony Mackie as Tupac; Naturi Naughton as protégé and sometime love interest Lil Kim; and Angela Bassett as his longsuffering mother who seemed to be the one rock-solid moral force B.I.G. had in his life. In fact, it is the scenes between mother and son that ultimately serve as the heart and soul of the movie.
For purposes of mass consumption and in the interest of burnishing B.I.G.'s posthumous reputation, the screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker provides a sunnier and more upbeat assessment of the man's final days than is, perhaps, warranted by the facts, but those who made the movie can't really be blamed for wanting to cast their subject in the most positive light possible, especially in the summary moments. It may take some of the edge off the movie in the final analysis, but not enough to spoil the many fine things it still has to offer.