hag•i•og•ra•phy (hāg’ē-ŏg’rə-fē, hā’jē-)
1. Biography of saints.
2. A worshipful or idealizing biography.
The inherent flaw in most biopics lies in the agenda of those behind the production; specifically, the pressing need of friends and family to portray the person in question in a positive light. What flaws there are on display are presented as forgivable in light of greater accomplishments, and the person’s influence is often exaggerated to justify the making a movie about them in the first place.
That the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls) was extremely influential is not in dispute. He’s popularly described as the “savior of New York hip-hop,” and is considered one of the greatest MCs of all time. A film version of his life story was therefore inevitable. What makes “Notorious” so disappointing is the kid gloves treatment applied to the subject.
Disappointing, but not surprising. After all, the executive producer is Sean “Puffy/Puff Daddy/P-Doo-Wah-Diddy/” Combs, Biggie’s longtime collaborator. Considering how much of Combs’ initial success was attributable to his exploiting the memory and talent of his dead friend, one could be forgiven for regarding “Notorious” as his final attempt to wring some cash from Biggie’s corpse. One can also be forgiven for approaching the film with some skepticism concerning the accuracy of what we’re seeing.
Director George Tillman Jr. stays largely faithful to early events. Born in Brooklyn in 1972, Christopher Wallace was raised by his mother Voletta (played here by the still stunning Angela Bassett), dad having split when Christopher was two. He excelled at school early on, but was drawn by the promise of easy money to hustling. Christened “Big” by his schoolmates, Wallace started rapping on the corner to entertain his friends. After doing a stretch in a North Carolina jail for dealing crack, he released a demo tape under the moniker “Biggie Smalls.” He caught the notice of producer Combs, who went on to make him the cornerstone of his Bad Boy label. Success followed swiftly, but was short-lived, as the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997 (as anyone who watched MTV in the ‘90s probably knows).
Unfortunately, the overall impression we’re left with is that Biggie was something of a shithead. Examples of very talented people exhibiting little common sense are easily found, but still frustrating. Biggie even ends up succeeding in spite of a spate of bad choices, from entering the drug trade to begin with (and not for the usual forgivable Hollywood reasons) to treating every woman in his life like garbage (ditching out on his daughter and bailing on his mom she tells him she has breast cancer, for example). Tillman and writers Reggie Rock and Cheo Hodari Coker would have us believe his good intentions make up for all this. And indeed, between barely plausible dialogue about “changing the world” and a particularly saccharine third act Thanksgiving scene, you almost believe – had he lived – Biggie would have finally emerged as a mature adult, lack of any prior evidence notwithstanding.
The feud between the East and West Coast hip-hop communities is also examined, though not much light is shed on the origins. All we know is that Biggie and West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) were close friends until Tupac was shot five times and robbed in the lobby of a recording studio. He would later become convinced Biggie and Combs had set him up. As is the case with the rest of the movie, nothing revelatory is in the offing, though I couldn’t help wondering how soon it will be before Suge Knight produces his competing Tupac bio.
Absent the actual music, “Notorious” would be a lot worse. However, there are plenty of performances to remind us how gifted and seemingly effortless a rapper Biggie really was. Why Combs et. al. refrained from humanizing the man by giving audiences a warts-and-all portrayal (most of his fans being well aware of his shortcomings already) instead of forcing his life into the same tired cookie cutter biopic formula is why the end result has to be judged a failure.