Starring: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke
Directed by: George Tillman Jr. (“Men of Honor”)
Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Biker Boyz”) and Cheo Hodari Coker (debut)
Whether or not you’re familiar with the life and untimely death of rap artist Christopher Wallace AKA Biggie Smalls or can sing along to some of his most memorable hip-hop lyrics, the music biopic “Notorious” is a fair albeit slight cinematic encounter with the man that turned East Coast rap into a competitive industry in the early 90s.
Newcomer Jamal Woolard is given the role of a lifetime as the Notorious B.I.G. and creates a very believable and expressive take on the musician who was gunned down in 1997 during the height of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud which left Wallace and, six months earlier, rapper Tupac Shakur dead.
The film begins with Wallace as a hefty kid growing up fatherless in Brooklyn under the watchful eye of his loving mother Voletta (Angela Bassett). Angry about only meeting his father once before the deadbeat leaves $100 and is out the door forever, Chris begins to put his abandonment issues onto paper and hopes to one day do something great with his life like the rappers he idolizes in magazines.
Chris wants to be respected and especially wants all the money and bling that comes with being famous He realizes, however, that reaching “big balla” status is much easier if he does what the other kids do in the neighborhood and sells crack. By the time he is 17, Chris is addicted to money and all the fine things he can purchase by working the street.
But as Chris’s music starts getting more and more popular in the underground, he’s given the chance to make it in the industry when music producer Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) hears a recording and offers to record with the big boy only if he quits selling dope. “The East Coast is just waiting for someone to fill that void,” Puffy tells Biggie when he offers the ultimatum.
While the script by Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Biker Boyz”) and debut screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker is a straightforward and safe take in biographical terms, it merely skims the surface of Wallace’s rise to fame and his life before he becomes a larger-than-life icon for the hip-hop world. It might be interesting to watch the relationships Biggie experiences as he makes his way through studios as a philandering thug, including one with his widow musician Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and rapper Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), but at times scenes feel rushed and unfinished.
There’s much to be desired from a film directed by George Tillman Jr., whose nine year hiatus as a feature filmmaker is evident with some of the choices he makes in tone and style. More could have been said about the East Coast-West Coast feud, a portion of the story that is more complex than the script leads moviegoers to believe. Tillman also refuses to vilify Biggie even a bit despite his real-life flaws. It’s no wonder the smooth operator had so many diehard fans. In “Notorious,” even his faults are made to be part of his overall charming personality.
However, the film, just like Biggie himself, flows incredibly well with a satisfying soundtrack and two authentic performances by Bassett and Woolard. While more hip-hop followers of the 90s will probably get more out of this production than anyone else, there’s just enough emotion lingering right beneath the surface that the filmmaker is able to tap into.