Release Date: January 16, 2009
Cast: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Antonique Smith, Anthony Mackie
By Sean Chavel
No, it's not the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock film garnering a re-release. "Notorious" is the new music biopic on Christopher “Biggie” Wallace whose hip-hop name became The Notorious B.I.G. The fury of the story lies in the feud between West Coast rappers and East Coast rappers which resulted in a violent eruption that eventually cut Biggie's life down short. In effort to honor his memory the filmmakers trace Biggie from his early youth to his gold record success.
Pudgy and spectacled, Biggie is a lonely Brooklyn kid insecure about his inability to stand-out. Young Biggie is a nerd with a journal, pouring outrage onto page with his pen that transform into lyrics, eventually growing courage to perform rap slams on street corners. By his teens, Biggie skips school regularly to become a crack dealer, using proceeds towards fathering his first child. There is a well-written scene early on of tough mother love between Biggie and Mom Voletta who wants him to clean up his act and drop the music dream. Voletta is a mom that would prefer her son to do well in school so he can become a doctor or dentist or something.
With poor sense to moral issues, the movie glamorizes the good and bad aspects of Biggie by constant buttering humor into every one of his situations. The soundtrack provides more introspect – Biggie's famous hit singles surround the movie – that selling crack was a method of surviving the streets which meant swooping into unsavory territory and protecting dangerous friends out of respect. While the script's moral adjustments are questionable, one performance isn't. Newcomer Jamal Woolard as Biggie in the lead role is unquestionably good, maybe even great in a couple of scenes.
Similar physical attributes aside, actor Woolard digs deep into Biggie's persona by capturing his off-the-cuff jive thus making every line feel fresh, but also by building his character from inner-city desperate hustler into nationwide popular Notorious, an en vogue gangster rapper with swagger. The casting of Woolard is the movie's crucial benefit, but the casting of Angela Bassett as the Jamaican-born mom is a stretch that never convinces that her nature and personality meshes with her Brooklyn neighborhood.
The script is a rags-to-riches prototype with visual razzle-dazzle that attempts to make an old storyline feel new. The key offense however is sugarcoating Biggie's sins, so that the movie has that “personal triumph” feel instead of a no holds barred docudrama that doesn't preach nor judge – which is the kind of honest feel it should have had. If triumph of the spirit inspiration is what you're looking for, check out “ Slumdog Millionaire” instead. But legions of fans will be curious to check this out anyway, Notorious B.I.G. music still shakes up nightclubs to this day.
After getting busted a couple of times for possession, Biggie decides to go straight by hooking up with record producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (played by Derek Luke, making an OK play with his performance, considering the actor and character look nothing alike). Biggie's first performance at a college auditorium is a great concert scene, at first getting heckled at for his plump weight before wowing the crowd with his music and a fakeout background scuffle act. From there on, it's champagne and recreational no-no's, and his first marriage with Faith Evans (Antonique Smith rocks), ups-and-downs with Lil ' Kim (Naturi Naughton , good with naughty), and the turbulent and finally destructive relationship with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, in a madly alive performance).
Biggie's famous hit single “Hypnotize” plays multiple times throughout the running time of the movie. Curiously “Mo' Money Mo' Problems,” an enormous popular signature of B.I.G.'s is missing entirely from the movie, leaving one to assume that the filmmakers somehow could not secure the rights to the song. I'm sure some more unflattering character details are missing from the movie, too. But overall, this is not a boring movie. The mid-passages of the concert scenes especially kick things into hyperdrive – this will certainly play well on DVD in the background at parties.