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January 19, 2009 | Comments ()

By Brian Prisco | Film Reviews | January 19, 2009 |


Biopics rarely succeed. It’s hard to make the public genuinely care about a person’s life, especially when the story must be tethered by the restraints of true life events. Even when the person in question has led a long, fruitful and substantial life. What makes Notorious B.I.G.’s life tragic is not just how woefully short it was — Wallace died at 25 — but how depressingly ordinary it was. His story could have been summed up in a Behind the Music VH1 interspliced with an episode of Maury Povich. Notorious is well acted with some great performances, but there’s really nothing heady or captivating to the story. Much like Biggie’s music, what’s done is done well, but it’s not reinventing the genre so much as perpetuating it. There’s no doubt his life touched many people, especially those in the urban communities where he came from, but it changed nothing. That he was gunned down — potentially over a rap feud (no light is shone on the unsolved mystery) — didn’t stop violence in rap music. The game just kept on being played.

Christopher Wallace was the only child of a single immigrant mother who sent him to private school, tried to keep him under her skirts, and instilled in him the importance of an education. But Wallace was growing up in the reality of Brooklyn, so as he got older, he ditched school and started dealing. Rapping was just a side thing. He came out of prison, made a demo tape and got it in the hands of a young and hungry producer named Sean “Puffy” Combs. When things looked like they were going to fall through, Wallace turned back to drugs and almost got busted for gun possession. His friend took the rap because Wallace had the chance to make something of himself. In the three years his friend spent behind bars, and under the wing of Puffy, Wallace became a multi-millionaire rap artist. Less than two years later, he was dead.

In the great Lone Gunmen filing cabinet of public figures being assassinated, the murder file on Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace wouldn’t be more than a few pages. Many musicians die in their prime, and their stories are full of just as much pathos and struggling to be heard, particularly the three-for-one special on Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper. Biggie wasn’t changing the face of music like John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix. His death wasn’t as shocking as Marvin Gaye getting popped at the hands of his insane father. Even with the killer never captured, Biggie Smalls’ death becomes a Jack Ruby-like footnote in the greater conspiracy surrounding the death (and depending on whom you believe, potential resurrection) of the far more charismatic and talented Tupac Shakur. If Wallace’s death had been the end to Source awards shootings for record contracts, it would be a story worth knowing. Yet, as Kurt Cobain’s Hemingway impression didn’t stop Elliot Smith from somberly stabbing himself to death or Michael Hutchens from swinging from a hotel noose, Wallace’s needless murder just became another depressing corpse in a long line of dead rappers.

If the story of Christopher Wallace had to be told, I’m glad it was at least in the hands of semi-competent director George Tillman, Jr., who was responsible for such tepidly adequate films as Soul Food and Men of Honor, as well as producing the Barbershop phenomenon. In the wake of “Oz” and “The Wire,” stories about prison life and drug dealing have become as sad and flaccid as Flavor Flav’s clock. Tillman wisely chooses to rush quickly through much of Wallace’s childhood and drug dealing to the meaty scraps left on this meager bone, namely, Wallace’s rap career and the subsequent women this gave him access to. Biggie Smalls had an appetite for the ladies. He was a father at 16 with a schoolgirl named Jan. He almost immediately ends up getting involved with a sexy department store salesgirl who has ambitions of a rap career and who Biggie Smalls crafts into Lil’ Kim. (More on that later.) While he’s building Lil’ Kim’s career, he meets another one of Puffy’s clients, the gospel belting Faith Evans, who he married days later and started a family with. After all of that, he’s still out popping groupies on the road. For a dude who’s O.P.P.’ed at least three different black women at the same time, he’s lucky he managed to live as long as he did.

The script by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker sounds like it was compiled from eating a bag of fortune cookies. It’s bland, stale, repetitive, basically consisting of bite-size slogans like “Before you change the world, you’ve got to change yourself.” Then again, if it were a Zack Snyder movie, a shirtless guy would be on a rooftop shouting them in the rain, so you take what you get. There are a number of great moments in the movie, hinging mostly on the excellent performances. Christopher Wallace, Jr. (Biggie’s actual son) plays him as a young nerdling, sort of a pleasant hybrid of Fat Albert and Ralphie from . Angela Bassett is transcendent as Wallace’s mother Voletta, and she could teach Halle Berry what a West Indian accent is supposed to sound like. While they’re relegated to mostly Angel and Devil in the script, Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim and Antonique Smith as Faith Evans kill their roles. Derek Luke’s Puffy Combs manages to seem like both a caricature and homage at the same time, with Combs’ L.L. Cool Bean sweaters and silk shirt fashion sense to his almost constant dance moves. Anthony Mackie puts forward a pretty decent Tupac, and so I hope his career continues to take off — maybe in something other than a movie about rappers trying to make it. And Jamal Woodard effortlessly portrays Biggie, but his heavy lifting is relegated to getting out of chairs. The script portrays him as kind of a bumbling potato who gasps his way from record studio to backseat blowjob to stage performance.

The movie is as decent as any musician biopic can be, essentially just telling the story. It makes a couple half-assed stabs at morality. For example, when Biggie’s visiting his baby’s mama’s daughter, he cancels his invitation to fuck with Lil’ Kim who he then calls a fucking bitch. He dandles his young girl on his knee and says, “Don’t ever let a man call you a bitch.” Then he goes home to his wife and other kid. The film takes absolutely no chances, basically presenting a slickly produced P. Diddy video, and just as devoid of story. If anything, the movie’s only real fault is that it takes the pro Puffy Combs/Faith Evans camp, essentially favoring their version of the story. (Which comes as no surprise since Combs was an executive producer on the film.) Faith Evans always struck me as the good one in the entire debacle, a nice girl with a pretty voice. In the film, while she’s not afraid to snatch the head of a girl who’s fucking her man, she manages to come off as classy and admirable. Combs is made out to be the only cool head in the rap world, wanting to rise above the entire West Coast/East Coast rap war and make money making music. It’s Suge Knight who’s briefly portrayed as taking the entire Tupac Shakur shooting (the first one — in the lobby of Bad Boy Records) and using it to make a record company off of a bicoastal rivalry. Tupac and Biggie were friends — Biggie admired him, and Tupac gave him career advice. But then paranoia and doublespeak started a war that got Tupac shot (a second time — fatally after a Vegas Tyson fight) and potentially got Biggie shot in retribution.

The person who takes it up the ass the hardest is Lil Kim. Lil Kim’s always bukakked with the reputation of being the nastiest bitch, the stripper who’s empowered by her sexuality because she can use her snappin’ pussy to get all the diamonds and the rings and the bling and have any dick she chooses. (Under ten inches — ENNNT — sorry.) In Notorious, she bangs Biggie and asks if he’s got a girlfriend later. Then, her entire rap persona is supposedly imagineered by Biggie, who says men don’t want to hear about gangsta chicks but rather want girls who’ll fuck them with the lyrics. He turns her into a whore, his whore, who turns petty and jealous when he marries the sainted Faith, and basically spends the rest of the movie like a jealous psycho starting fights and trouble. Of course, when Biggie died, Lil’ Kim went into an almost two year depression. Faith Evans and Puffy remixed a Police song and essentially lived off the fatted calf of Biggie’s corpse for the same period. So you do the math. Or don’t. Both Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans have memoir/tell-alls due out sometime in the coming year.

Notorious was a decent flick, but again, the story doesn’t shine any light on the tragedy of Biggie’s death. It doesn’t even propose a suggestion as to who might have killed him. The basic moral of the story is that shit happens, and he tried, but shit got him in the end. It’s a shame, but again, it just becomes another story in the sad history of popular music. It’s not a skin color thing, or a style of music thing, it’s just a terrible fact. Notorious isn’t going to open your eyes to the truth or even act as a deterrent. It’s just going to tell you the story you already knew.

Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. When not traveling in and out of books to stay narrowly ahead of the pack of Cannonball Readers, he can be found on a Wii Fit staying narrowly ahead of a massive coronary infarction. He catches what floats down in the sewers of the comments section and burps it up for your amusement. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com. He steadfastly awaits the day when Mayor McCheese comes up for re-election so he can finally bust up the porkbellies of McTammany Hall.

Notorious / Brian Prisco

Film Reviews | January 19, 2009 | Comments ()



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