Who would have thought that rapper Notorious B.I.G., who was at the center of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop wars and died in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, was just a big, cuddly, misunderstood teddy bear of a guy? Oh, sure, he fathered a couple of kids pretty accidentally, bedded whoever caught his fancy and had the occasional burst of temper in which he mistreated women—as well as starting his career as a drug-dealer—but what the hell? He was just struggling to overcome the realities of a difficult childhood in a broken Brooklyn home. And he achieved not only professional success but the adulation of his fans.
That seems to be the message, at least, of this completely authorized biographical picture, which lists among the producers the big fellow’s mother Voletta Wallace and his erstwhile manager Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. But unlike “Tupac: Resurrection” (2003), the film about the West Coast rapper murdered in 1996 who’d feuded with B.I.G.—which also had his mother as a producer—“Notorious” comes across as a sanitized treatment that embraces every cliché of musical biography without shedding much real light on its subject.
We’re introduced to Christopher Wallace at age eight, when he’s played as a schoolboy by Christopher Jordan Wallace (it’s a family thing). Abandoned by his father but blessed by supportive mother Voletta (Angela Bassett), Christopher nonetheless gets involved in the drug trade under the tutelage of Damion “D-Roc” Butler (Dennis L.A. White), especially after as a grown young man (Jamal Woolard), he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Damion also recognizes Christopher’s talent as a rapper, and takes the fall for him when they’re arrested for selling. By then, Christopher’s been taken on by record producer Combs (Derek Luke), and eventually they achieve success together, as well as friendship with Tupac (Anthony Mackie).
But that camaraderie is shattered by Shakur’s shooting, in which he comes to believe that Christopher, now known as Notorious “Biggie,” and Combs were involved, setting off the hip-hop wars. Biggie’s personal life also craters when his new squeeze Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) discovers his infidelity. That ultimately takes us to L.A., where our hero meets an apparently feud-inspired bullet, or volley thereof.
If this all sounds sketchy and unrevealing, so’s the movie, which seems more interested in drawing a largely sympathetic and superficial portrait in a flashy style than in providing any serious insight. In the process it fails to explain, or even lay out with great precision, what’s happening at various times, and what the import of it was—simply to follow the story, it’s really necessary to study up and bring some background knowledge to the picture with you.
And unfortunately the movie is hardly worth the effort. Just as scripters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodan Coker are content to draw in the broadest strokes, so are director George Tillman, Jr., the crew headed by cinematography Michael Grady, and the cast. There’s nothing in the turns by established performers like Luke, Bassett or Mackie that goes beyond the surface, and though Woolard has a certain eager charm, he doesn’t have the chops to pull off the transition from hapless boy to egotistical superstar; in the final scenes he seems like a kid playing dress-up. And since he’s so central to the film, the effect is fatal.
So if you’re interested in “Notorious,” my advice would be to rent Hitchcock’s. It’s got a lot more suspense, and better music too (score by Roy Webb).