Not so “Notorious”

By Gus Bode

Wes Lawson

Daily Egyptian

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Rated R

Starring: Jamal Woodard, Derek Luke, Angela Bassett, Anthony Mackie

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

Run time: 120 minutes

2.5 out of 5 stars

A man is born into poverty in Brooklyn. His father is not around, and his mother is incredibly protective. He becomes a drug dealer to make ends meet, ends up in jail a couple of times, and gets out. He spends his free time rapping on the streets about his problems, until a record producer who promises to make him a millionaire eventually recognizes him. He becomes enormously successful, even as he cheats on his wives, ignores his children, and ultimately finds redemption before his life is cut short.


Does this sound like every music legend biopic that has been produced by Hollywood in the last 20 years? It should, and ‘Notorious’ is no different. It is a shame that a rapper as influential as Notorious B.I.G gets such a generic treatment of his life, even when we get occasional flashes of the movie that might have been. Then again, when your producers are your own mother and the man that made you famous, it is not like the movie is going to be a hard hitting indictment of your life as a rap star.

We see Biggie (played by his own son as a child and Jamal Woodard as an adult) grow up with a fierce mother (Bassett) and a series of girlfriends and drug deals. His talent for rap is noticed by Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (Luke) and he is made a millionaire by the time he is 21. He was shot dead at age 24 in a drive by shooting in 1997, part of a rap feud between East coast/West coast rappers led by Tupac Shakur (Mackie). Shakur was gunned down just a few months before Biggie was, and this lead to intense speculation about the nature of their deaths.

Unfortunately, the feud between Biggie and Tupac is the most interesting part of the film, and it’s dangerously shortchanged. The 2002 documentary ‘Biggie and Tupac’ was far more compelling in telling their story. Here, the audience gets, in essence, a shallow retelling of the events of Biggie’s life.

The film’s biggest sin is that it gives no compelling reason as to why Biggie was such an interesting person with an interesting life. Sure, he touched a lot of people, as the powerful final scenes demonstrate with actual footage of his funeral procession, but why?

The movie can’t really say, aside from the numerous scenes in which we see the rapper performing and hear the power of his lyrics. According to this film, the driving force behind his songs was pretty much the driving force behind every rapper who ever lived- sex, drugs, money, poverty, and a broken home. Why would we want to see the same thing again when we could really get a hard-hitting account of his life?

The movie also dangerously shortchanges its supporting characters. Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans were important women in his life, but the movie doesn’t give us scenes that show it, aside from on stage tirades and scenes that linger on the beauty of the actresses bodies. Bassett, as Biggie’s mother, gives a good performance, but she isn’t on screen long enough to get a sense of what she did for Biggie aside from providing a shoulder to cry on. The same goes for Luke, who does well with his scenes but seems too saintly to be a true presence in Biggie’s life.

Although the film’s storytelling is completely generic, it makes up for it with a fierce style and great performances. George Tillman Jr. keeps the movie moving at a steady clip, even at two hours. Jamal Woodard, who plays Biggie, can be stiff at times, but his performances echo the man and are quite compelling. And Anthony Mackie, as Tupac, gives the film’s best performance, the only one who feels like he is actually a real person and not just a construct of a screenplay. The film will certainly sell soundtracks, and the music is superb, but we could go buy ‘Ready to Die’ and get the same effect.

‘Notorious’ is an OK film, but a dangerously shallow examination of a life cut down in its prime. It could have been so much more, and it deserved to be, as Biggie is a man with an endlessly fascinating catalogue of music. Hopefully, audiences will seek out the documentaries about his life after this film and have their thoughts provoked, something ‘Notorious’ fails to do.

Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275.