My first love, culturally speaking, is music, not movies. And I've come to believe that despite releasing only two albums in his short career prior to his 1997 murder, rapper Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls or Big Poppa, etc.) is as momentous an artist as popular music has produced over the past 20 years.
Many people, of course, struggle to reconcile the notion of "hip-hop" and "great art," and while watching Notorious, the new Wallace biopic directed by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food), co-written by Reggie Rock Blythewood (Get on the Bus), and starring first-time actor Jamal Woolard, I tried to imagine how it would be received by someone not as primed to care about hip-hop as I was.
The answer is that Notorious not only doesn't seem to make a case for the unconverted, it doesn't really try. (When Tillman drops in archival footage of Wallace's funeral at the end of the film, I imagine viewers not already fans wondering what the big deal was.)
There's nothing in Notorious as cinematic as musical crime stories "Warning" or "Somebody's Gotta Die," where Wallace recounts violent threats and reprisals in heart-stopping detail. There's nothing as moving as "Things Done Changed," where he stresses over his mother's breast cancer and laments a cultural disintegration so total that parents are made to fear their own children. And there's nothing as inspiring as the towering hip-hop Horatio Alger tale "Juicy," even though the movie takes pains to literalize many of the song's most memorable moments (a childhood spent listening to "Rap Attack" with Mr. Magic and Marly Marl on the radio, the "red and black lumberjack, with the hat to match" he wore as a teenager, etc.).
One problem is that, while Notorious recounts Wallace's career in step-by-step fashion and is filled with music, the focus is more on the life than the songs. Wallace's life story — a talented but troubled product of a Brooklyn broken home who became a music star — isn't that unusual or special (at least until his death); the art he made from it is.
The film takes the quality of its music for granted. It makes its case with reaction shots and the reality of Wallace's financial success, but it doesn't draw a distinction between his music and that of other on-screen performers such as Tupac, Lil Kim, and Faith Evans. And it never really gets into the guts of Wallace's songs. The recording session for "Juicy" is a key scene in the movie, but unlike in, say, Cadillac Records, Notorious doesn't have the patience to let a complete song be performed and to focus the audience's attention on the music itself.
Notorious is also hurt by its tell-not-show narration — a lazy decision that reflects the film's lack of ambition. In the lead role, Woolard does a better job than I expected from the trailers. He's an engaging presence who is convincing in performance scenes and gets Wallace's charm. But he lacks the gravity to fully capture the character. This version of Christopher Wallace misses the fierce intelligence, the cold, biting humor, the pained regret.
As executive-produced by Biggie mentor Sean Combs (well played by Derek Luke on screen), Notorious is a partial version of Wallace's story — especially as regards the final thrust of still-controversial violence that led to the deaths of Wallace and onetime friend turned rival Tupac Shakur — but it feels credible. This is a flawed film but one that I enjoyed. It's a can't-miss for B.I.G. fans but not at all essential for anyone else.
Opening Friday, January 16th