tn_notoriousNOTORIOUS, the biopic of the late rapper Christopher “Notorious (Biggie Smalls) B.I.G.” Wallace comes out on DVD today.

I don’t know about Gene Shalit or Tom Shales or some of these guys, but I gotta admit I don’t come to NOTORIOUS as a Biggie fan from day 1. I was a late adopter. I knew a couple of those catchy songs with the R&B choruses, so I thought he was just a gangster Heavy D or a fat Ladies Love Cool James. But years after his death when I finally heard the whole “Ready to Die” album I was converted immediately.

It’s true that Biggie (who was only 24 when he died) mostly had the same materialist tough guy obsessions that 50 Cent still has as a grown adult and business leader. He’s rhyming about money and guns but like a real slick director his execution elevates the subject matter. He was one of the best storytellers in hip hop.

I just read a negative review of NOTORIOUS that called Biggie “talentless” and quoted one of his rhymes to supposedly prove it, but Biggie had the type of intricate flow that makes the words sound much more complex than they would be on paper. (And they’re only on paper after you transcribe them because Biggie kept all the rhymes in his head.)

Instead of a quote here’s my favorite Biggie song, where he somehow turns the idea “I’ll shoot you if you try to steal my shit” into a great crime story:

(Or part of a story anyway, I guess nothing actually happens after he gets the titular warning.)

So I come to this movie pre-sold on Notorious B.I.G. the hip hop legend, and that definitely helps. I’ve been hoping for years somebody would make a sweeping, Scorsese-esque hip hop period piece, and this isn’t it. It has many of the standard musician biopic problems (although with the MALCOLM X way of dying instead of THE DOORS) but it’s way better than I was expecting.

mp_notoriousThis is actually alot like 50 Cent’s semi-autobiography movie GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’. Both tell the story of a kid from a broken home who grew up on hip hop, envied other people’s shoes, sold crack, had a wife and kid, stopped selling crack because of hip hop, also went to prison and got shot. They even have the kid who played young 50 Cent playing Biggie’s close friend Li’l Cease.

GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ is probaly the better directed movie, because I remember it had a couple really well put together scenes, particularly the fight in the prison showers and the shooting in the recording studio. But what makes this one way better is the guy at the center of it. First of all, Biggie is a better representation of a rapper success story because he is simply a way better rapper. When it comes down to it both of them are scumbags, but it’s easier to look for Biggie’s humanity because you hear it in his music. He has a sense of humor and fun. And Jamal Woolard, the rapper who plays Biggie, is a much stronger actor and screen presence than 50. More on him later.

As much as I like Biggie’s music I had to call him a scumbag because I don’t want anybody going in expecting otherwise. I’ve seen it called a whitewash and a hagiography (touche, fellas, you win the word duel) but he’s not exactly portrayed as humanitarian of the year. For a movie produced by his mom and his friends it sure isn’t easy on him. He doesn’t just sell crack – he sells it to a pregnant woman when none of his friends are willing to do it. He gets his high school girlfriend pregnant then abandons her for Li’l Kim, then abandons Li’l Kim for Faith Evans (who he marries), then attacks Li’l Kim when she says in front of Faith that she’s still fucking him, and attacks Faith when Tupac says in a song that he’s fucking her. Just before he dies Biggie talks to all of them and tries to have his kids come visit him, so it’s comforting to think he was going to start being a better father, husband and friend. But who the fuck knows? I’m not sure this counts as a Malcolm X style transformation.

I like that I didn’t feel like the movie was trying to convince me he was a great person. It just knows that he was an interesting one, which is all you need for a movie. We’re gonna have to accept this if Spike Lee is really gonna make a James Brown movie.

But NOTORIOUS is still pretty standard for the genre and suffers from symptoms of music biopic-itis. His career being so short you don’t have to go through the usual amount of highlight reels, but there are definitely some scenes that tell naturalism to fuck off and have the characters just say exactly the best thing to sum up the importance of the moment. For example the very second Biggie meets Puffy, Puffy makes an impassioned speech about not hustling and instead following your dreams. Actually come to think of it it is possible that Puffy really did say that. But what about the scene where Biggie’s friend decides to go down for Biggie on a weapons charge? This is an amazing sacrifice to make and made Biggie’s career possible, but I kind of doubt that guy right then and there made a speech about how Biggie had something special and if he gets lifted off the streets it lifts ALL of us and etc. It’s still a touching moment but I think would be more powerful if they talked about it like real people.

If you’re familiar with some of the people portrayed in the movie you get to play that usual biopic game of comparing the actors to the real people. Angela Bassett is a great (if obvious) choice for Biggie’s mom Voletta Wallace. She doesn’t bother to do her Jamaican accent the whole time but still, Voletta is the ultimate Strong Black Mother in real life, you gotta get either Angela Bassett or Alfre Woodard. Anthony Mackie also does a great job in his scenes as Tupac. He’s kind of like Jason Scott Lee in DRAGON – he looks and sounds totally different from Tupac, but gets his movements, his laugh and his smile down so well that he transforms himself. Derek Luke, on the other hand, never once looks or sounds like Puffy, to the point where I sometimes forgot who he was supposed to be playing. Naturi Naughton as Li’l Kim and Antonique Smith as Faith Evans – well, to be honest I’m not as familiar with those artists, I never really paid that much attention to them but as characters they work as two opposites, the trash talking, aggressively sexual woman and the classier one, both helped and hurt by Biggie. And Faith actually gets to be the tougher of the two because of the scene where she busts into a hotel and beats the shit out of a girl Biggie is sleeping with.

biggiesBut the secret of the movie, what made me really like it despite its many flaws, is that they picked a good Biggie. Woolard is a first time actor and up and coming rapper under the name Gravy. When the first promo pics came out I kept seeing movie blogs saying “he looks exactly like him!” which meant “he is a large black man wearing sunglasses and a hat!” Actually he doesn’t look much like Biggie, his voice is much higher and his rapping style is pretty different. What he does get right though is the charisma. This is a really good performance that made me like Biggie despite all the stupid shit he did. He wins you over with the little jokes he makes, like when he gets out of prison and holds his daughter for the first time, his mom starts crying and he says, “Why you crying? She ain’t that ugly.” You get to understand how he makes Faith forgive his problems by making her laugh and then it’s a sad and pathetic moment when he tries to make her laugh but the power of his charm has run out and she cuts him off.

When Biggie songs play on the soundtrack they play the actual songs, but whenever he’s performing them on stage or recording them in the studio it’s Woolard. He doesn’t really mimic the original style very closely but it’s a good idea anyway, it makes him more real somehow, not just a guy playing dressup. The concert scenes are really effective with the crowd really yelling out the rhymes and getting into it.

One major obstacle: you can’t do a movie about Biggie without talking about Tupac’s death and the so-called East Coast/West Coast feud. The movie shows Biggie’s friendship with Tupac and the incident where Tupac was shot and robbed at a recording studio while Biggie was upstairs. Tupac thought Biggie and Puffy set him up, started doing songs about it, went to Death Row Records where Suge Knight (only seen a few times in the movie) turned it into a feud with Bad Boy Records and exacerbated the whole thing to the point where New Yorkers like Biggie couldn’t perform in L.A. without getting booed and vice versa.

The movie takes the point of view that the whole feud was a media creation, that Biggie and Puffy were completely innocent of the shooting and for the most part were above taking part in the feud, and of course that he was shocked when Tupac was killed. So I guess you’ll either buy it or think it’s bullshit depending on if you believe that homicide detective Russell Poole (who thought some crooked cops working for Suge Knight killed Tupac) or the guy in the L.A. Times (who claimed Biggie not only set up Tupac’s murder, but went to Las Vegas himself and gave the killer his own gun to use. I tend to believe the version that does not involve a 6’3″ 300 pound superstar having to sneak into Las Vegas without being spotted by a single witness, but maybe they can make movies about other points of view on this.

Seriously, there should be two other movies here, the one about Tupac and the one about Russell Poole and the whole conspiracy, the real life L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. I gotta betray my coast and say that I think Biggie was a way better MC than Tupac, but Tupac was maybe a more interesting person. Like Biggie he was raised by a strong, single mother, but his mom was a Black Panther who was pregnant with him while she was in prison. So he grew up around black militants and considered himself a revolutionary. On the other hand when he was at Death Row he got caught up in all that stupid gangster bullshit. He would do one song about bitches and one song about his mother, he had that whole duality. It could be an interesting movie, but would face the same problem of depicting his unsolved murder.

So anyway, that’s all difficult to deal with, and since they really don’t know for sure who did it they have to leave that unanswered. But that’s okay because in a way this is Voletta Wallace’s story, and she’s left wondering about her son’s murder every day. This is her story because she’s the mother who worked two jobs to raise her son alone. When young Big leaves the apartment it’s like he’s Batman, he has to go up on the rooftops to change into his hustler uniform. Like most parents Voletta is naive about what her son is up to, but when she finds out that wasn’t a plate of rotten mashed potatoes she found under his bed and threw out she tries to put her foot down. Big goes out of her life for a while and she goes out of the movie.

The tragedy of this story is not just that he gets murdered, but that he repeats the sad pattern of his own childhood, not bothering to see his daughter very often and thinking he’s still a good father because he sends her money. There’s an extra layer of sadness when you realize that’s Biggie’s real son, who was a baby when his dad died, playing young Biggie dealing with being abandoned by his father. If Biggie had lived maybe he would’ve spent more time with these kids, or maybe not. There’s a scene where Voletta says he’ll make a great father, and you believe it, but then he screwed up and never had time for a second chance.

You have to struggle with all of these thoughts while watching the movie, just like Voletta did. She knew her son and why she loved him and also knew the things he did that disappointed and worried her. But then after his funeral we see (through real footage that could never quite be re-enacted) the crowds of fans lining the streets of Brooklyn during his funeral procession. The movie doesn’t really address the morbid, inevitable feel of it, the self-fulfilling prophecy of a rapper who called his first album “Ready To Die” and his posthumous one “Life After Death,” and ended that one with the words “You’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.” A guy who on “Suicidal Thoughts” confessed his feelings that he’s “a piece of shit” and that he’s going to hell. Those are the kinds of gloomy thoughts you could dwell on on a day like that. Instead somebody turns on a radio playing “Hypnotize” or something. Everybody smiles and goes crazy, rapping along and dancing, and Biggie’s mom and everyone else remember why they loved this guy so much.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 21st, 2009 at 3:44 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Music, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Notorious”

  1. I haven’t seen this yet, but I noticed that Danny Elfman did the score which seems odd that they would have ANYBODY do a score for a movie based on a musician. The fact that it’s Danny Elman of all people seems like a strange choice.

    How did it sound? I’m guessing he didn’t do the Beetlejuice – Simpsons style, or did he?

  2. No not at all. I was really surprised when I saw his name on the end credits and I couldn’t remember when there had been a score. Then at the end of the credits there is some very moody music that works well but that nobody would guess was Dan Elfman.

    If I had known that going in I would’ve paid more attention. He’s been doing some unexpected ones lately – didn’t he do MILK too?

  3. Speaking of Elfman, I hated how he had a major falling out with Sam Raimi after that SPIDER-MAN 2 scoring snafu. A pity because those two worked well together.

    My one problem with maybe seeing NOTORIOUS is what you didn’t highlight Vern…that Mr. Vote or Die himself produced this. So of course he and Mr. B.I.G. were innocent in the whole Tupac incident. Not that I, like everyone else, have any clear idea what really happened that night, but maybe I would have been more comfortable with that interpretation of history if Diddy wasn’t involved at all with this project, or perhaps at the least be a silent producer (i.e. no credit)

  4. I loved the review, Vern. Been planning to see it, but I’ll have to accelerate the process now that I know this isn’t a movie that lets Biggie off the hook. Interesting complicated characters of course are always better than the ones with all the cracks smoothed over, and I hate it when biopics make some pop culture figures into martyrs. The aspect of him fucking up his life and relationships is nothing new for this kind of movie, but the fact that he was just re-enacting the way his father treated him brings it a different dimension. I might be alone here, but I think films dealing with the suffering we all go through are more therapeutic to the soul than all the non-confrontational musicals and comedies combined. I’m not indicating that Notorious is going to be this depressing slog, but that by seeing Biggie smalls as a flawed, sometimes troubled man instead of simply the music superhero everybody already knows, I’ll be more involved with the story and relate with him on a human level. By the way, wasn’t Stallone continuing to develop the Russell Poole story? Who knows, maybe if the expendables is a hit he’ll get around to making it.

  5. Obviously Elfman is the first choice to score this movie, thanks to his past with Smalls…who could forget the feud between Oingo Boingo and the upstart Bad Boy Records, ended with the dissolution of those post-punk funsters in favor of New Wave/Gangster powerhouse The Notorious E.L.F.?

  6. steven-is-my-name-not-my-tag

    April 21st, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Nice review vern, I’ve been a fan for years now, and its about time I get a place to show you how much i really enjoy reading your reviews, I sometimes sit for hours just reading them, keep up all the good work.

  7. Danny Elfman did the score MILK. I don’t remember it now, but I remember liking it when I heard it. He also did HELLBOY II and I didn’t know until the giant beanstalk creature scene. Totally had his style, but somehow sounded just a bit different. I’m interested to see what he does with the new TERMINATOR movie and also kind of nervous because I love Brad Fiedel’s scores for the first two movies.

  8. PATRICK – Not sure what happened with Stallone’s Russell Poole movie. I tried to look it up while writing this review and the most recent thing I read referred to it as a cable movie and called it “Notorious.” So I’m guessing that one was bullshit. I was always confused about how he planned to do the movie since he supposedly asked Suge Knight to play himself, and obviously if it was gonna have even a tiny similarity to the book you wouldn’t expect Suge Knight to play himself in it. Also, you would not want to be within 100 miles of Suge Knight for the rest of your life.

    HEATH – somebody linked to some Terminator Salvation video game websight that played what was supposedly Elfman’s Terminator theme. Whatever it was I liked it, very electronic and weird and seemed Feidel-influenced.

  9. Thanks, Vern. I just checked it out (http://www.terminatorsalvationthegame.com/) and I really like what I hear. Gives me hope and it really does sound influenced by its source material without being a ripoff. Gotta love the metal clanging.

  10. Hey Vern. Great review as always.

    In case you didn’t know, you were mentioned in the Fall 2008 issue of Cineaste magazine:

    “Some of my favorite film sites (sic), such as Vern’s “Then fuck you, jack” or Victor J. Morton’s “Rightwing Film Geek”, occupy niches (diametrically opposed, as it were) that no for-profit publication would support. Similarly, fine writers like Girish Shambu, Ekkehard Knorer, and Cristoph Huber, tend to use the Web to do what I try to do in my own more modest way, which is to tread that damnably unmarketable line between academic and popular writing, importing concepts while thinning out the jargon. Hell, even Bordwell has used the Web to cut loose a little, although he’s thankfully refrained from bashing us Marxo-Lacanians. All of the writers I’ve mentioned maintain exacting, rigorous standards in their site (sic) work, and their critical acumen is present in every post. But I think the Internet has allowed these writers to explore their personal voice in a freer way, and this enriches film culture immensely.”

    – Michael “Marxo-Lacanian Academic/Popular Writer” Sicinski

    Congratulations, you have arrived!

  11. Oh and if you have it in your heart to review Watchmen and/or Observe and Report I would be grateful.

  12. Making a biopic that ends with an unsolved murder isn’t impossible. I think Auto Focus did it really well. Sure, there is an allusion to who did it, but it doesn’t come right out and say it or show the person doing it. I think a Tupac movie could work, but I think they should wait another decade.

  13. BlackFrankWhite

    April 25th, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Only “one of the best storytellers in rap?” come on, Vern. This is like saying that Pryor was one of the best in standup comedy or that Hendrix was just one of the best guitarists. After listening thoroughly over the years to motherfuckers like Rakim, KRS- One, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, NWA, Scarface, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Snoop, Wu-Tang, Tupac, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, 50, T.I and Lil Wayne I can tell that Biggie, just like Pryor and Hendrix, is not to be fucked with (Pac the only one coming close to this status, but not lyrically, only because of his undefeatable charisma).

  14. Great review vern – the last paragraph was beautiful. There is a very interesting documentary about the insanely complicated murder plot that was apparently concocted against Biggie. It is called “Tupac and Biggi” by Nick Broomfield. Biggie’s mother is heavily featured in the moviem but the main draw is Broomfield himself, who is one of those documentarians who don’t want to dictate some kind of complete picture but instead present you with lots of discordant puzzle pieces that the viewer himself is supposed to put together. He actually believes in the intelligence of his viewers,a rare thing even in the documentary business.

    Once again, cheers for the review, I wanted to pass on the movie but now I’ll give it a shot.

  15. Frank, you may be right. I was thinking Slick Rick as possible competition for that title and I think Ice Cube is up there considering songs like “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” and whatever that one is where he thinks he got the girl pregnant.

    Maturin, glad you liked the review. I have seen Biggie and Tupac and there’s a review of it around here somewhere. The part where Broomfield goes for an unscheduled interview with Suge Knight is hilariously tense. You find yourself thinking, “I’m sure I would’ve heard about it if this guy got killed trying to interview Suge Knight.”

  16. hiphop beat…

    You all missed Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang. Props on someone knowing who Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are. Mentioning the Beatie Boys without reference to Doctor Dre is a rap sin. De La Soul are weak hippie rapper- wanna- be lamers. B…

  17. I’d say you’re wrong on De La Soul though. Wannabe what? They got a guy who just calls himself “Dave.” They don’t wannabe anything and don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about them. I don’t remember them ever following a trend or chasing after hit singles or videos or any of that usual commercial shit, and at the same time they don’t seem to repeat themselves much.

    You mean to tell me you don’t even like Stakes Is High? Come on hiphop beat. I like the Sugar Hill Gang too, but THEY were the wannabes, studio rappers put together by their label and using other people’s rhymes. If you’re gonna be easy on them I say you shouldn’t be so hard on De La Soul.

  18. VERN — Spot-on with the hip-hop references as always. “Stakes is High”, it seems to me, ought to make the top five for “Sweeping Hip-Hop Cultural Overview” albums, along with “Fear of a Black Planet”, “Black on Both Sides”, “Death Certificate”, and… okay, I don’t have a go-to number five (arguments could be made for “Ready to Die” or maybe some of the Roots’ stuff…). The Ice Cube song where he knocks the girl up is “You Can’t Play Me,” and it for sure rivals Biggie in the storyteller category.

  19. Just re-visited 8 MILE for the first time in 10 years, and I’d forgotten how good it was. Surprised you haven’t reviewed this one Vern, with your love of hip-hop.

    I’m not into hip-hop as such but I can appreciate the talent and artistry of performers like Eminem.

    I liked how the final showdown was filmed like it was a boxing match between Rocky and Drago, with the stare-off before they duelled, and how the camera stayed in real close to the action when they were rhyming.

    I’ve seen NOTORIOUS and GET RICH also but this is the best of the bunch for me.

    I thought Eminems acting was pretty good. Of course it wasn’t exactly a challenging far-removed character for him to be playing, but he was grounded and believable.

    Kinda glad he didn’t pursue an acting career and become a DTV regular like 50 Cent. Would be good to see him try another serious role in the near future.

  20. Anyone else looking forward to ALL EYEZ ON ME? Pretty cool that they got Woolard returning as Biggie. And it must be weird for Jada Pinkett Smith, getting to see herself portrayed in this.

    I was hoping for a wraparound of the same actors who did Suge and Snoop from STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, but I guess the producers weren’t aiming for a Hip Hop Cinematic Universe. Too bad, I say.

  21. It looks pretty lackluster tbh. Then again I didn’t like this one either and never bothered with the NWA joint. I witnessed these events in real time growing up as a spectator, member & fan of the culture so nothing these hip hop bios pull off will really shock or impress me like the real life events did.

    Especially if they’re watered down or misrepresented as was the case with some of the stuff in NOTORIOUS.

    On the upside it exposes new people to these artists I guess. Like all of a sudden I have younger people who used to skip to the next track whenever something from STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON came on my ipod like 5 years back now wearing Raiders and Compton hats and reciting the lyrics to Boyz-n-the-hood like actors do Shakespeare. Guess thet needed a trendy movie to help them give those songs a fair shot.

    With that said If John Singleton makes his Pac movie I might see that one though. Simply because his personal relationship with Pac automatically will give it more authenticity than this upcoming biopic.

  22. Also when the eventual Wu-Tang movie happens I want it to be an action packed martial arts meets hip hop extravaganza.

  23. I’m looking forward to this one. Man, the cat who’s playing Tupac looks so much like him it’s eerie.

    I miss Tupac.

  24. karlos we all miss Pac. I wish whoever he reincarnated into would just grow up and start creating art already.

  25. EYEZ is getting less than good reviews. Main criticisms being it’s a worship piece, and a shallow one at that. Think I’ll wait for dvd.

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