A biopic of massively successful East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka Christopher Wallace, aka 'Chrissy-poo' according to his mum), Notorious is a better film than anybody had a right to expect. It certainly had its work cut out for it. How can one tell a story so well known to the subject's fans in a way that offers them something fresh? And how can one tell the story of a rapper in a way that makes it accessible to mainstream audiences, that enables them to understand why Biggie mattered so much?

The lynchpin of this film is its central performance. Jamal 'Gravy' Woolard put a tremendous effort into preparing for his role and it really pays off. His portrayal of Biggie is warm hearted yet honest; he isn't an actor who's afraid to portray weakness, and he does a good job of demonstrating the subtle ways in which Biggie changes over the years without ever losing his child-like core.

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He packed on weight for the role and as a consequence the Biggie in the film dominates his surroundings physically as well as artistically, even when he's doing very little. He's a man who doesn't have the option of fading into the background. One way or another, he's bound to attract attention, so the best he can do is to try and make sure it's for good reasons.

Born on the Lower East Side, fat, insecure and anxious to be popular, the young Biggie was easily drawn into crack dealing. The film explores this in a refreshingly neutral way. There's no glamorising of the drug - we see the desperate wrecks of human beings who use it - yet dealing is presented as simply a means of getting along in the world, something to which its participants attach no great social significance.

When confronted by a police officer distraught over escalating violence on the streets (John Ventimiglia in a brilliant cameo), Biggie and his friend D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White) seem genuinely unable to relate to his concerns. We see how rap can take the place of violence in solving disputes within their community. They are not lawless, merely working to a different set of rules, and their bonds of friendship are intense.

It is this friendship that allows Biggie, recognised from the start as possessing an unusual talent, to break out of the poverty trap and into the music business. In this he is aided by the smooth talking Puffy (Derek Luke), yet even at this stage we see how his angry, political artistic aims are compromised by the need to please other people. With fame comes the process that will gradually eat away at his confidence and sense of himself.

Biggie stumbles through it all with a curious innocence, seemingly unable to think beyond the moment, for all that we're told he's inspired by a dream. It's a case of the acting reaching beyond the confines of the script and presenting us with an unapologetically awkward character, a man who has something really important to say but is hopelessly vulnerable to distraction.

One of the things that older viewers may find most challenging when it comes to sympathising with Biggie is his attitude to women. His trading up of partners from overweight black girlfriend to slim black girlfriend (Naturi Naughton, excellent as the equally frustrated Lil' Kim) to the white woman (Antonique Smith as Faith Evans) whom he cheats on with groupies is portrayed as completely careless and selfish, yet at the same time, we don't get the impression that he intends to hurt anyone, and we also have to ask why the women allow it to happen. Lil' Kim is the standout character here, at times barely distinguishable from her real life counterpart, a woman who wants to take a political stand but is told she should first concern herself with being sexy. It's a deeply sexist world, but nobody seems to be making any effort to change it.

Cosseted by all this attention, Biggie is equally clumsy when it comes to his relationships with friends set to become rivals, most notably Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). It is this which leads us into the East Coast - West Coast rapper rivalry that will ultimately end in Biggie's death (no spoiler needed - you'll see it at the start of the film). Yet Biggie's mother (superbly played by Angela Basset, who reminds us yet again of the type of roles she deserves and might have had if she were white) is determined that her son is growing up and, ultimately, that his achievement as a rapper is something that can uplift their whole community.

There are two principal flaws to Notorious. For those unfamiliar with the rap scene in that era, it can easily be confusing, with many characters only cursorily introduced. This is a shame because otherwise the film is very watchable regardless of one's background and it does a good job of crossing cultural boundaries. The other is the straightforward, uninventive way in which the story is told, which will leave some fans cold, though there's much more to explore here if one is ready to turn one's attention to character. Fans will engage well with the way the film is shot, following the style of videos from the period and keeping this up impressively well over its considerable length. They will also enjoy the music, which is woven seamlessly throughout.

All in all this is an accomplished work and one of the better music biopics out there.

Brooklyn Go Hard - Jay Z

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2009
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Notorious packshot
A biopic of rapper Biggie Smalls.
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Director: George Tillman Jr

Writer: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker

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

Year: 2009

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


BIFF 2009

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