Tuesday June 19, 2018

10 Years & 1 Movie Later - My Thoughts on "Notorious"
Posted by Steve Juon at Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 2:30AM :: Email this article :: Print this article

"Notorious" opened to audiences nationwide in the United States this weekend. Most of you visiting the site or reading this article are well aware of the film - in fact my advertising firm has been plastering EXTRA large billboards all over OHHLA and RapReviews promoting the film. Don't let that fool you into thinking I have any kind of pull whatsoever - I had to shell out $20 for popcorn and two movie tickets like the rest of America to see this film yesterday afternoon. That price level often makes me think twice about going to see a flick, because if you're patient the film will be out on DVD for the same price or less in six months (or $5 more if you go for the Blu-ray). Movies about hip-hop are fairly few and far between though, biographical ones even more so. My professional curiosity as a hip-hop historian was also piqued by the concept of a Christopher Wallace film. Even more than that, I felt like I had a personal stake in the film, given I came of age to Biggie's music. His remixes and soundtrack appearances got my attention when I was still in high school, his music shaped my college career, and his untimely demise occurred before I even finished my degree. I suspected watching "Notorious" would be like reliving a six year span of my life at the same time I got to witness his. Before now there had been unauthorized documentaries, books on his unsolved murder, all sorts of tribute albums and everything else under the sun dedicated to the Notorious one. To me "Notorious" had the potential to be a definitive statement not only on his life and times but on MINE - an Andrew Jackson well spent.

The trailers before "Notorious" seemed to play to a mainstream as opposed to a hip-hop audience. Only one film struck me as being target-marketed directly to me - a comedy/action flick titled "Next Day Air" starring Donald Faison, Mos Def and Mike Epps. The premise is that a hapless delivery man (about to be fired by his MOM for his incompetence) takes a package containing drugs to the wrong address. Rather than inform the delivery man of his mistake, the cheerful recipients immediately plan to sell the drugs to a well connected friend and pocket the profits. When the drug cartel finds out their package went missing, they believe the delivery man stole it, and he has to try to make amends before they kill him not knowing the contents of the box are LOOONG gone. While the movie strikes me as having some amount of comedic potential, this is likely to be one of those "I'll wait for the DVD" films - and in this case I mean RENT not buy. I was also intrigued by the "Wolverine" prequel although I wonder if X-Men movie fans will buy into it without Charles Xavier and the rest of his crew. Thankfully Hugh Jackman is still playing the role or the movie would suck an incredible cock and I wouldn't even bother with it whatsoever. One other trailer comes to mind - "12 Rounds" starring John Cena. I was actually hoping it would be a boxing flick, but instead it's a very predictable rip-off of "Die Hard With a Vengeance" where our cop hero Cena is given specific time limits to complete impossible tasks. This is not a film I will see it theatres, buy on DVD, or even rent from the local video store. If it shows up in a $5 bargain bin by next Christmas, I may pick it up, but that's about it. If I get a comp on it as part of my WrestleMania travel package though, what the hell, I'll go. Nothing else comes to mind - the rest of the trailers were a blur.

"Notorious" starts with Biggie's son CJ Wallace portraying the life of one young CHRISSY-POO as his strict but affectionate mother likes to call him. Through CJ's eyes we see life growing up in do or die Bed-Stuy, where life was hard and the only heroes were the hustlers on the corner. Young Chris wanted to wear the clean white sneaks and fat gold chains of his idols, but Mom Dukes wouldn't let him off the stoop to get anywhere near that kind of trouble. The reappearance of Christopher's erstwhile father changed all that. Mom begrudgingly let him in their apartment to talk and almost as quickly threw him out when he offered a token C-note instead of taking any real interest in his son's well being. With no other male role model in his life, Chris made the street entrepeneurs his idols. He puts down the pen and pad while writing rhymes about hating his dad and finally ventures off the stoop despite his mother's potential repercussions. His friend D-Roc proved to be a perfect conduit into the drug game, and soon Chris was making hand to hand sales "like you're slapping the man a five."

From there we quickly progress to Jamal Woolard playing Biggie Smalls, the teenage son who now has a thriving career in illegal drugs. Biggie dresses down to fool mom into thinking he's an angel, then unlocks a secret stash once outdoors with his gold chains and virgin white sneakers to wear to school. The young man has problems though - he's "smarter than he looks" according to his teachers but he's learned he can make more selling drugs or being a garbage man than his educators can, so he plays class clown until he gets the boot. That's exactly what he wanted anyway - he just wants to kick it on the corner with his crew. Biggie also has a girlfriend who's pregnant, and he's trying to make more loot to support her and his soon to be born daughter. To kill time while selling rocks Biggie raps for his friends, who see his potential and urge him to challenge a neighborhood rap star named Preme. Biggie wins the crowd, but loses two years behind bars shortly after when he's caught dealing. Wallace vents his frustrations by writing book after book of rhymes, sharpening his skills for a soon-to-come rap career.

Now if you already know Biggie's life story, you know how the rest of the movie goes down from this point forward. If you don't, I don't feel like I should give away the whole plot before you put down your own Andrew Jackson on it. Let's shift up then to whether or not the movie realistically portrays said life, starting with Jamal Woolard. Personally I believe Woolard was the perfect choice to play Notorious B.I.G. Let's not pull punches about this - Biggie was no svelte teen idol - and that was part of his appeal. Through his personality and his incredible rap ability Biggie turned a deficit into a positive. Biggie admitted in his songs he was a "heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever" but the fat man from Bedford-Stuyvesant was as charming as Frank Sinatra to the ladies, and Woolard oozes the same charisma Wallace did. From the diminutive thugged out Lil' Kim to the statuesque beauty of Faith Evans, women fell for Notorious like apples fall from trees. This also turned out to be a negative in the end, as Biggie was a little TOO charming for his own good, resulting in his lovers becoming enemies with each other and feeling no trust when he went out on tour. Kim has complained to the press that she is portrayed as too conniving but I feel Naturi Naughton was spot on as the spunky yet sensitive Kim. She really did want the best for Christopher Wallace, but she also wanted him all to herself and was very reluctant to share. Antonique Smith was also excellent in the role of Faith Evans, occasionally wooden but still easily believable as the shapely diva whose good looks and beautiful voice won Christopher's heart enough to wife her. The strongest of all female performances though was Angela Bassett as Voletta Wallace, Biggie's frustrated but still loving and supportive mother. The accent may have faltered once or twice but not in a way that shattered the role, as you never had any doubt how much she loved her son no matter how much trouble and drama swirled around him.

On the flip side the central male figures in Biggie's life come up a little short in the flick. Dennis L.A. White as D-Roc is by far the most believable and realistic, right down to his unwillingness to compromise when he thinks he can further Biggie's rap career by doing a jail bid in his place. The scene feels exaggerated for the sake of the film's plot, a little too "Law & Order" if you will, but until I can re-read a biography of Wallace's life I'll accept it at face value. Derek Luke as Sean Combs though is to quote a Biggie song DEAD WRONG. Arguably Puffy is such a unique cat, for better AND for worse, that Combs is the only man who could ever play Combs in a movie. I realize how absurd that would be to film, let alone how awkward it would be for Combs to play himself as real standing next to a fictional version of Wallace, but they definitely could have cast someone who LOOKED more like Combs let alone had his mannerisms down better. He's reduced to the role of an "aiyyo" hypeman in many scenes, and when the Suge Knight character derides him in a pivotal scene setting up the East/West feud you have to wonder what the beef really is. Knight claimed both in film and in real life that Puffy was making himself a star at the expense of being in every song and video Bad Boy made, but the statement had far more truth in real life. This Puff Daddy isn't nearly obnoxious enough to be real. Other than their keen sense of marketing saavy, the two men are nothing alike. Anthony Mackie gets an A for effort trying to portray Tupac Shakur, first as an intelligent and affable young man, then as an increasingly paranoid and vengeful rap star. Unfortunately Shakur is another man who is hard to accurately portray on screen, because Mackie is far from nihilistic and paranoid ENOUGH to get the larger than life Shakur right. It may be too much to hope for in a film about Biggie that Tupac also be realistic - the movie has to focus on Wallace first - but considering how close Woolard came to the real thing it's hard not to notice how little his unintentional rival came to duplicating that feet.

In the end "Notorious" strikes enough right notes and few enough wrong ones to be satisfying. Minor things irked me here and there, such as Biggie songs playing in the background that chronologically hadn't even been recorded yet in the film's timeline, but one can argue that's the film's "score" and not meant to be literal in context. It's still disconcerting all the same. On the other hand Wallace's steadfast refusal to elevate the beef with Shakur is very accurately portrayed, as he constantly refuses to call Shakur out even when the crazed rapper gets in his face time and again in person and on wax. The only time Wallace snaps in the film is when a picture of Shakur with his wife Faith Evans surfaces in a magazine, and unfortunately Biggie takes out his frustrations by scaring her to death instead of calling Shakur out for it. This too seems accurate as the two were estranged (but not seperated) at the time of his death. What haunts me about the film is the same thing that haunted me in 1997 when he died. In interviews and on his album Biggie sounded like a man who had been matured by the traumatic experiences of his young life and his rapidly expanding role as a father to his young children. In both cases at the end Wallace was ready for a whole new stage in his career and his life, only to be gunned down before "the new improved B.I.G." could step into the limelight with his sophomore album. Seeing the funeral procession through Brooklyn is as emotional now as it was back then. Like the rapper the movie portrays, "Notorious" is not without its flaws but will still leave you charmed and ultimately heartbroken. Don't be surprised if you catch yourself rapping along with Woolard as he performs Biggie's songs - just like you're watching a music video from the genuine article himself. His performance is that good and it makes this film, though it's hard to wonder where he goes from here considering just how much he looks and sounds like B.I.G. I'm already looking forward to whatever transformation he undergoes for his next starring role to see how it compares to this one, and the fact I want to see him again proves just how compelling he can be. Whether you're a fan of the man and his career or happened to skim across this article because you're curious, you'll enjoy "Notorious" either way - a powerful story about a young man who for a very short time made the whole world his oyster. I hope his children better understand the father they knew so little of when they see this film.

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