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Notorious is the story of Christopher Wallace who, through raw talent and sheer determination, transforms himself from a Brooklyn street hustler to one of the greatest rapper of all time, The Notorious B.I.G. This story charts his meteoric rise to fame and his refusal to succumb to expectation. Produced by Voletta Wallace (BIG's mother), Wayne Barrowman and Mark Pitts (BIG's managers), Notorious challenges us all to redefine our notion of what "The American Dream" really is.
In music terms, Brooklyn’s Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace was a hip-hop superstar to rival Oakland’s Tupac Shakur. In movie terms, however, 2Pac has long overshadowed B.I.G. with the films he made as an actor and the documentaries that followed in the wake of his similarly-unsolved murder. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor) aims to correct that imbalance with Notorious, the authorized biography of the larger-than-life New York rapper. Produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Bassett), and record producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), Tillman presents Biggie as a bright child who grew up to be a drug dealer before finding his true calling on stage, only to be cut down in the prime of life. In his feature-film debut, Jamal "Gravy" Woolard captures Biggie's complexity--the loyalty to his crew, the disloyalty to his ladies (including Lil' Kim and Faith Evans)--but struggles to make him as sympathetic as the figure that emerges in Nick Broomfield's Biggie & Tupac, simply because the script relies too heavily on the usual musical-bio clichés. Fortunately, several bright spots elevate the scenario, such as Anthony Mackie as Pac, Christopher Wallace Jr. as young Biggie, and Woolard's rapping, which segues seamlessly into B.I.G.'s (the soundtrack mixes original tracks with remakes). If Notorious isn't a failure, it isn't a triumph either, but Tillman has crafted it with love and respect, and only a stone could remain unmoved by the real-life funeral footage at the end. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Stills from Notorious (Click for larger image)
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The movie was quite obviously engineered and manipulated by Puffy and Bad Boy Records. Throughout the film, Puffy was portrayed as a virtual saint--always "saving the day" with his words of wisdom and innocence. He was never shown doing drugs (despite nearly everyone else smoking blunts throughout the whole movie), participating in the sex-filled music scene, or doing anything that would shed even a hint of a shadow upon him. It was quite sickening how saintly he is portrayed, especially when we all know better.
Tupac's portrayal was also hard to believe. His character made odd appearances throughout the film, always appearing as a paranoid, hyper-acting, shallow punk. As a huge Tupac fan, I was quite offended by the way he is portrayed.
The east/west feud was knocked down to a simple misunderstanding fueled by Tupac's baseless paranoia and the media. Biggie was portrayed as a victim of the feud. He just couldn't understand why Tupac would suddenly turn on him, since they had always been friends. (Poor little B.I.G.) All responsibility for fighting and fueling the feud was put on the media and Tupac. None was put onto Biggie or the saintly Puffy. They were helpless victims in the whole thing.
Biggie and Faith Evan's relationship was poorly developed. The movie seemed to focus more on Big and Kim's relationship than his and Faith's marriage. It was quite confusing.
Big's first child with his high school girlfriend was ill-developed and just plain confusing. His girlfriend was not even introduced until she showed up to tell him she was pregnant. Then, she was virtually dropped, making minor appearances from then on. The best way I can describe it is just plain weird.
Throughout the movie, song lyrics were dropped in as dialogue, such as "mo money, mo problems" and "to change the world, you have to change yourself." It seemed fake and engineered--a real eye-roller.
Though the movie was quite long, it was difficult to understand. Characters were abruptly introduced and had sudden major roles, but I couldn't figure out who they were. I actually had to review Biggie's biography while watching the movie to figure out exactly what was going on.
The film did have some positive notes. Some of the casting was wonderful. Lil' Kim and Biggie were both spot-on believable--the way they spoke, their mannerisms and their rapping. And the music was, of course, fantastic.
Maybe Shug will now produce a rival, west-coast rendition of Tupac's life. :-P
I'm sure if he does, it will have the nerve and gumption that Notorious does not.
The first 45 minutes of the film are the most interesting as it focuses on Biggie's early career as a drug dealer. He's constantly arguing with his mother (played by the always solid Angela Bassett) who finally throws him out of the house after he won't give up his drug-dealing ways. Eventually he lands in jail where he starts writing rap lyrics which he eventually fashions into full-fledged songs in the recording studio. The era is ably recreated as we're given a sense of how rap music developed during the 1980s and early 90s.
After his release from jail, Biggie starts building a reputation as a talented rapper in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He becomes a protégé of up and coming producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (one of the producers of the movie) who takes him under his wing. When Puffy is fired, Biggie goes back to drug-dealing only to find himself arrested again. This time however, a friend offers to take the rap on a gun charge and Biggie has a second chance to resume his career.
The rest of the movie chronicles Biggie's eventual rise to the top. I was a little uncertain as to how Biggie actually got there. At one point he's 'paying his dues' playing college gigs at places like Howard University. The next thing you know he's got a number one hit record.
If one is to believe the screenwriters, despite Biggie's involvement in the violent world of rap music, he was really a big Teddy Bear at heart. He's a character who can basically do no wrong. Even though he cheats on the three women he's closest to (the mother of his child, his wife and Lil Kim, fellow rap artist and lover), they all forgive this Teddy Bear despite his boorish behavior.
Notorious lacks a central external antagonist who Biggie is pitted against throughout the movie. If there is an antagonist, it's got to be Tupac Shakur, the West Coast rapper who had a falling out with Biggie after he was shot outside a NYC recording studio. There are few dramatic scenes between Biggie and Tupac in Notorious and the relationship is mainly fleshed out through the use of an off-screen narrator. While Biggie admires Tupac as a philosopher and activist, he also perceives him as a loose cannon. According to Biggie's version, after Tupac was shot for the first time, he became completely paranoid and believed everyone was after him (including Biggie).
As Biggie tells it, he made attempts to reconcile with Tupac but it never really worked out. Meanwhile the media played up the "East Coast-West Coast rivalry" which may have eventually led to the assassination of both Tupac and Biggie. The 'rivalry' is explained through a montage sequence which made me feel I was watching a documentary and not a feature film.
The second half of Notorious mainly involves Biggie's internal struggles, particularly in the area of becoming a more responsible adult. Again, if you believe the screenwriters, despite acting irresponsibly with women and immersing himself in the thuggish, materialistic world of rap music (an involvement in a world which eventually led to his death), Biggie managed to stay 'above the fray'. The point is made that his second (and last) album revealed a more 'sensitive' side and that he was turning away from violence right before he died.
One gets a feeling that the writers of Notorious have little information as to Biggie's dealings in his behind the scenes business world. Certainly they offer no theories as to who did him in. Instead, we're treated to all the histrionics of his volatile relationships with women (which basically proves that he was a 'ladies man' and nothing much else). By focusing mainly on his relations with women, we only get to see one side of Biggie and I didn't feel this was a complete, rounded picture.
Probably the weakest character in the film is Puffy Combs. Since he's one of the film's producers, it's not in his interest to suggest anything controversial about his own character. Thus, Derek Luke has little to do in this film except act the part of a glorified cheerleader.
Notorious touches on all the bases of Christopher Wallace's life. For those unfamiliar with all the details, it's a modestly interesting and somewhat entertaining story. Nonetheless, the filmmakers chose to place their protagonist on a pedestal. By doing so, they imply that Biggie was detached from the violent world which he was a part of. That somehow he was an unsuspecting victim who had nothing to do with his own demise. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle--that at times he could be Biggie the Teddy Bear and at other times, Biggie the Thug. Instead of a hagiography, Notorious needed to present more of a balanced portrait but it settled for an excessively sentimental and by the numbers treatment which earns it an average "3" in my book.