Published Jan 15, 2009It starts at the ending. It's night-time in California and the date "March 8, 1997" appears on the bottom of the screen. The setting alone is enough for anyone familiar with Notorious B.I.G.'s tragedy to get a chill - they already know what happens on the ninth. Then a narrative voice, Biggie's, jarringly pulls the scene back and rewinds to the fatherless Brooklyn childhood of Christopher Wallace.
His is a large and layered life to cover in two hours, and Notorious, as the first major hip-hop biopic (8 Mile was a fictional tale loosely based on Eminem's rise from Detroit poverty and Tupac: Resurrection a documentary), will be sharply scrutinized by a rap community that idolizes the charismatic lyricist who was murdered at 24, in his prime.
Director George Tillman pushes the narrative forward, trying to re-enact as many key moments and touch on as many role-players as possible in Big's growth from drug dealer to stage stealer, yet stopping noticeably short of exploring his still-unsolved murder. The sex may be graphic but the violence is not.
Though the pacing ensures there's never a dull moment, complex relationships are reduced to scant minutes of screen time, and it helps if the viewer has their own background knowledge of Lil Kim, Puff Daddy, Faith, Tupac, Lil Cease and the rest, as Tillman unravels a multidimensional Wallace: son, father, friend, husband, womanizer, callous crack salesman, lovable superstar.
The self-narration, particularly in the film's first act, is a hindrance; Notorious, like one of Biggie's own picture-painting verses, is better off when it shows rather than tells. When our "hero" stubbornly sells drugs to a pregnant lady the other dealers won't supply, when he bounces his daughter on his knee and teaches her the couplets of Kurtis Blow - these moments last.
Of course, a biopic is only as strong as its star. Cast via an open call, 300-pound-plus newbie Jamal "Gravy" Woolard fills Big's Coogi sweater nicely. Although his rhyme flow falls short of the one of the best to ever hold a mic, his quick wit, spot-on breathing patterns (Biggie had asthma) and his knack for vacillating between fierce and cuddly pay remarkable tribute to an MC - nay, a man - who is still missed 11 years later. (Fox)