If you go to your nearby video store and ask for Notorious, you won’t be handed a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller – instead, you’ll get a bland, uninteresting biopic about Notorious B.I.G., one of the most popular rappers in the history of rap.
Considering my disinterest in rap, that’s like saying he’s my favorite financial analyst at AIG, but to give credit, Notorious B.I.G. was a major player in the industry. As with so many of the early rappers, he started off in a life of crime as a drug dealer, but was soon discovered by Puff Daddy and turned into a sensation. Unfortunately for him, he got caught up in a feud – either due to miscommunication or reality no one will ever truly know – with Tupac, and that feud eventually resulted in the violent deaths of both men.
Notorious is directed by George Tillman, Jr., who has some credibility with films such as Soul Food and Men of Honor. The writers are another story, as their two resumes combined result in one slightly recognizable title, the forgettable Biker Boyz, not to be confused with Wild Hogs. The screenplay is the problem with this biopic, which is not horribly written other than that it lacks passion, grit and complexity. The film was made solely to represent B.I.G. in a relatively positive light, play a little of his music and rush through his life, which is sort of ironic considering that he was only 25 when he died. In other words: Notorious is made for his fans and no one else.
Jamal Woolard plays the title character, who was also known as Christopher Wallace or Biggie Smalls. Woolard, a rapper in real life apparently, turns in a pretty strong performance; he’s believable as “the legend” and brings some sincerity to the role, which is impressive given that the screenplay as a whole is pretty shallow. The supporting cast also do their best with what’s given to them, as Derek Luke (Sean Combs), Marc John Jefferies (Lil Cease), Naturi Naughton (Lil Kim) and Angela Bassett (Biggie’s mom) all are pretty believable.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is rushed and superficial. It isn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, and is nowhere on the level of an MTV music video homage that it could have been, but that still doesn’t make it great. While I’m not a fan of rappers and find the whole “glamorizing the criminal life” rather counterproductive to African American progress, one has to admit that some of these guys have pretty interesting stories to tell. Yet, Tillman glosses over just about everything, from Biggie’s early life as a drug dealer to his feud with Tupac and his various relationships. The result is a film that shows everything but doesn’t explore anything, making it utterly forgettable.
Another ten years down the road, it’d be interesting to revisit the story of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur simultaneously, and focus on their rise, fall and the feud in between. It’d be an extremely interesting character study that could appeal to audiences outside of rap fans. Had Notorious gone this route, or simply given a more complex, gritty portrayal of Biggie’s early life, it could have been something; instead, it’s just a recap of his life, not a study of it.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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