DVD Review: “Notorious”

Written by DVD Reviews, Film

notoriousNotorious (2009, 20th Century Fox)
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As a 39-year-old white male who lives in the suburbs, I am clearly not the intended audience for the Notorious B.I.G. biopic Notorious, but damn, I really enjoyed this movie. While it does cover the same ground as almost all music biopics (rise to fame, fall from grace, then redemption), Notorious has enough great music, charismatic performances and, because the events being told took place in the recent past (the rapper was murdered just twelve years ago), a contemporary feel that helps it rises above to the top of the genre.

Notorious opens with a the drive by killing of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace just as he’s on top of the world. The moment a hail of bullets shoot through the window of his chauffeured SUV, Wallace begins a voiceover narrative of his life. Its an effective method for the filmmakers, for if, as some say, your life flashes before you just before you die, then the highs and lows may be the things you recall. We begin with the young Wallace, (portrayed Wallace’s real-life son, Christopher Jordan Wallace) growing up in the tough streets of Brooklyn. He’s a bright kid being raises by his strong, single mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett, one of cinema’s great actresses). To escape the ridicule of his classmates, he shows an early gift for writing rap songs. Sadly, he falls in with a street hustler and begins selling drugs, thinking that money and bling make you a man. We jump forward several years and Wallace is a teenager (and from this point, portrayed by rapper/actor Jamal Woolard). WhenVoletta kicks him out of the house for dealing, Wallace winds up getting busted and spends two years in prison. Behind bars he begins writing raps in earnest and he decides to clean up his life and become a responsible adult.

Once out of jail, Wallace makes an attempt to be a father to his daughter by his girlfriend, while also starting relationship with a sexy woman he meets on the streets, Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton). Jones would later take on the stage name of Lil’ Kim under Wallace’s guidance. Wallace also meets a rising rap mogul named Sean Combs (Derek Luke). When an initial rap deal with Combs falls apart, Wallace returns to the world of dealing and gets arrested a second time. However his friend, D-Roc, takes the rap so Wallace can pursue his music career and make it out of the world of drugs and crime. Combs comes through when he creates his own record label, Bad Boy Records, and Wallace, now called the Notorious B.I.G. or just Biggie, is one of his first artists.

We watch Biggie’s rise to fame after the release of his first album, Ready to Die, but also see how mistreats Lil’ Kim, neglects his daughter, and tries and fails at marriage with Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), with whom he has a son. There’s also an ongoing feud with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and Death Row Records exec Suge Knight, which the film tries to portray as a series of misunderstandings — in particular, the shooting of Shakur in Quad Studios (where Biggie was recording upstairs) and the release of the song, “Who Shot Ya?” which Shakur felt was about him, but Wallace claims was written long before the shooting.

After a debilitating car accident, Biggie begins to reflect on how much he’s screwed up everything. Even with all the riches in the world, he isn’t happy. Taking inventory, he starts to turn his life around and records his second solo, Life After Death. He flies to L.A. for a record premiere party, and the film ends where it began, with an SUV idling at a stoplight and another car pulling up alongside it with guns aimed at the Notorious B.I.G.

There are nuances to Notorious that you wouldn’t expect from your typical music biopic. Credit director George Tilman (Soul Food) for bringing out the best in all of his actors, in particular Woolard, who carries nearly every scene on his broad shoulders. Bassett brings class and fierceness to the role of Voletta, Derek Luke is able to capture the smarminess and charisma of Combs, Naughton delivers a fine performance as the erratic and jilted Kim, and Smith is wonderful as Faith Evans. Technically, the film moves at an even pace and isn’t all flash and pizzazz. The scenes have time to breathe and we really get a good sense of who these characters are and the environment they all live in. Finally, the soundtrack is outstanding.

For someone whose interest in rap dissipated around the time of “Fight the Power,” the film was informative and I really enjoyed being exposed to the music of Notorious B.I.G. Was I the intended audience for this film? Probably not. However, it’s my belief that most filmmakers aspire to reach as wide an audience as possible not just the demographic the movie studio is aiming for. Tilman has done a nice work here crafting a movie that should appeal not just to rap or music fans, but for general moviegoers, as well.