Notorious tells the inarguably compelling story of Christopher Wallace, a mountain of a man who gained worldwide success as rapper Notorious B.I.G. when he was barely out of his teens, and was dead by the time he was 24. He was shot to death in a drive-by hit that seemed the logical extension of the lifestyle he represented, even if it wasn't the lifestyle that he was living.
That dichotomy is one of the more fascinating elements of his life, and one that goes back to his childhood; he was raised by a loving single mother and attended good schools, but was drawn to the danger (and rewards) of slinging drugs. His relationships with women were similarly complicated--he was abandoned by his father raised by a strong, independent woman, but after his success made him desirable to the opposite sex, he frequently treated the women in his life as objects and all but abandoned his own first child.
The unfortunate news is that the complex psychology of Christopher Wallace barely gets lip service in Notorious, which abandons depth in favor of the standard, paint-by-numbers beats of the musical biopic. The music is infectious and the performances are skillful, but the screenplay and direction are so predictable that the film feels like it was assembled from a Mad Libs book.
Rapper Jamal Woolard (in his screen debut) plays "Biggie" from age 17 on (Wallace's own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays him as a young boy), capably embodying his charisma and presence, even if his voice is a little higher-pitched than Biggie's. Some of his best moments come in the portrayal of his close relationship with mother Voletta (Angela Bassett); their scenes are mostly grounded and believable, though poor Bassett gets saddled with the lion's share of the corniest dialogue. In spite of her positive influence, Christopher can't resist the urge to make some paper selling crack on the corner; he first sees writing and performing rhymes as a hobby, a diversion, rather than a source of honest income. That said, he clearly has a gift, and an early scene where he takes on a neighborhood rhyming rival transcends its inevitability (is it legal to make a hip-hop movie that doesn't have at least one "battle" scene?) and serves as an effective illustration of how unique and comparatively sophisticated his style was. It's a rare moment where director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker show instead of tell, letting us see Biggie finding his voice and glimpsing his future instead of saying he did so in another of the script's clumsy voice-overs.
Christopher eventually gets popped and does some time, spending much of his incarceration sharpening his lyrical skills, and when he makes it out, a demo tape ends up the hands of Sean "Puffy" Combs, played by Derek Luke in a passable if uninspired performance. Luke doesn't look a bit like Combs (though he does have his odd dancing down pat), but more distressingly, the role is just dull as toast; Combs is credited as an executive producer on the project, but that's no excuse for to turn his character into a blandly supportive saint, mouthing inane inspirational slogans like some sort of a hip-hop Leo Buscalia.
Combs is on his way out at Uptown Records, but promises Biggie that he'll be an anchor act for his new label. On the way to that moment, Biggie and his street-hustling partner get popped on a weapons charge; a powerful scene follows, wherein the buddy takes the fall for Biggie's gun so that his boy can stay out of jail and follow up on his music opportunities. That's about the last moment of real surprise in the second act, as the rapper's rise to fame is accompanied by the expected indulgences and vices--in this case, the large man's love for the fairer sex, at first in the guise of neighborhood girl-turned-performer Lil' Kim (well-played by Naturi Naughton, who nails Kim's sexiness, fragility, and vocal quality) and then with singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), who he marries and promptly fools around on while he's out on the road. Smith and Woolard have nice chemistry, but we've seen all of these scenes (and heard these lines--"I don't even know who you are anymore!") a thousand times before. That said, I liked how the screenplay works Kim and Evans' song performances into the fabric of their love triangle storyline.
If the script follows a too tried-and-true formula with regards to Biggie's rise to the top and excesses of success, it does manage to get a storytelling charge by tracking the splintering of his friendship with Tupac (Anthony Mackie) and how it escalated into the East Coast/West Coast beef that, either directly or indirectly, led to both of their demises. That's a story we haven't seen before (aside from in Nick Broomfield's excellent Biggie and Tupac), and it is a fascinating one, lending some much-needed momentum to the third act--though we probably could have done with at least one or two fewer scenes of Biggie getting his life back on track right before his untimely death (the fact that he ties up every single loose end feels too damned nice and neat to be entirely convincing).
Tillman's direction is pretty pedestrian--some of the individual shots are stylish, but the assembly of the scenes and the overall narrative lacks any real punch or surprise. The concert scenes have a nice energy, however, and Woolard is a real find, easily carrying the entire film on his broad shoulders. It's a shame he didn't have a less predictable picture to carry. It may just be that all musical biographies are bound to follow the same playbook (unless they're an oddball mindfuck like I'm Not There), but that's not enough of a reason for Notorious to hammer its clichés as hard as it does.
Notorious is being released as two separate packages: a single-disc, movie-only edition, and a three-disc special edition, with one disc for the film, one disc for the special features, and a third disc with a digital copy for portable devices (I honestly don't understand digital copies of standard-def DVD releases. Blu-ray, I get. But are there that many people who use video iPods and still haven't figured out how to use Handbrake?)
In addition, two versions of the film are offered: the theatrical cut (which runs about 123 minutes) and the "extended director's cut" (clocking in about six minutes longer).
Video and Audio:
Our friends at Fox have only provided a screening copy of Notorious for review on DVD Talk. As is custom, the single-layer disc features unfinalized video and audio presentations, including a 2.35:1 anamorphic image that's lousy with compression artifacts and logo burn-ins. The 5.1 audio mix is more acceptable, with a clean center dialogue track and a nice spread of music and effects, but this too may be a work-in-progress We'll hopefully see a final retail version, and be able to adjust this review accordingly.
The bulk of the bonus features are on disc two, with only a pair of Audio Commentaries supplementing the theatrical cut of the movie on the first disc. The first is with director George Tillman, Jr., screenwriters Reggie Rock Blythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, and editor Dirk Westervelt. It's a fairly informative and interesting track, with plenty of discussion of the filmmaking process and the choices made at the screenwriting stage. The second track focuses on the film's relationship to the real story by offering commentary by Voletta Wallace and Biggie's managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts (all three are producers on the film as well). There's not exactly a wealth of penetrating information here, but it is a good-natured conversation and it's always nice to hear from Ms. Wallace, who remains a fascinating figure.
Disc two kicks off with "Behind the Scenes: The Making of Notorious" (27:22), a detailed look at the creation of the picture, from the extensive casting process to the involvement of Biggie's family and friends to the on-set operations (down to the props and costumes). "I've Got A Story To Tell: The Lyrics of Biggie Smalls" (9:32) focuses his music and personality, interspersing clips of the film with testimonials from friends and enthusiasts. "Notorious Thugs: Casting The Film" (9:06) covers, via interviews and audition footage, the casting of the supporting players with the input of many of the people they portrayed. "Biggie Boot Camp" (6:49), narrated by director Tillman, shows the extensive process of training the actors (particularly first-timer Woolard) to inhabit their iconic roles.
"Anatomy of a B.I.G. Performance" (5:15) is one of the stronger featurettes, detailing the shooting of the concert scenes, with comparison footage of real performances. "Party & Bullshit" (3:44) is an uncut view of one of those performances--it's in rough shape (complete with tape glitches), but it's pretty remarkable nonetheless. "The B.I.G. Three-Sixty" is a viewer-controlled virtual tour of the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, where Biggie was murdered, with the option of brief video clips explaining various points on the scene. It's a pretty morbid inclusion, but an interesting one. Ten Deleted Scenes follow (12:16 total), though some are merely extended versions or minor transition scenes; the filmmakers also apparently experimented with a parallel timeline of the night of Biggie's death (intercut with the main narrative) but wisely booted it. Finally, we have Trailers for The Secret Life of Bees, Gospel Hill, and Slumdog Millionaire--though, strangely, none for Notorious.
There's no question that Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace's story is a compelling one, a kind of hip-hop Horatio Alger tale of a young man who made it big by telling the kind of stories that he knew from firsthand experience. But Notorious suffers from the familiarity of the story's broad strokes; it feels assembled from spare parts, squandering the opportunity to weave a real and complex narrative in favor of the usual rags-to-riches, mo-money-mo-problems template. Some of the performances are inspired and the music is energetic, but we ultimately don't learn much about Christopher Wallace here that we didn't already know from his songs.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.