Biggie biopic burdened with cliches

Jeremy Lim

The most important aspect of any biopic is the ability of the lead actor to capture the film’s subject. 

In that sense, “Notorious” is a success, as small-time rapper-turned-actor Jamal Woolard captures the charm, swagger and personality of deceased hip-hop star Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G. 

As the artist who (for better or worse) defined popular rap in the early ’90s, Wallace’s persona is familiar to legions of fans. 

Woolard manages to channel Wallace’s mannerisms, voice and sense of humor. 

Indeed, the film truly comes alive whenever Woolard is rapping on stage or recording – these performances contain enough energy to make the biopic seem like a live concert film.

Unfortunately, the musical performances are the best part of what is a formulaic, although entertaining, film.  The arc of Wallace’s life plays out as a Horatio Alger-esque rags-to-riches tale. 

A gifted student with a protective mother (Angela Bassett), Wallace becomes entranced by the chains and fly sneakers of the local drug dealers. 

While hustling on the corners, he retains his love affair with hip hop, rapping for friends and making a demo tape. 

Ambitious record executive Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) snatches him from the streets, steering him into the then-burgeoning rap world and lending a pop sensibility to match Biggie’s rougher, more violent rhymes.

The rest of the movie hammers home the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” theme, as the pressures of fame and fortune replace the paranoia and uncertainty of the street. 

Biggie marries R&B artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) while carrying on an affair with his own artist Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton). 

His mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and his friendship with rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) is threatened by a violent East/West Coast rap feud. 

Through it all, Woolard does a fine job of maintaining Biggie’s affability and humor despite the crushing weight of superstardom.  The rest of the acting is not nearly as strong. 

A fine actress, Bassett is shackled by a cliché-ridden script that forces her to play the one-dimensional part of a worried mother. 

Mackie is never really convincing as the enigmatic Shakur.  And Luke is a complete non-entity as rap mogul Puff Daddy (although he may have been trying to convey Puffy’s substance-less sheen, in which case I should give him more credit).

George Tillman’s direction is almost too frenetic – there are quick cuts and odd angles, and some of the music selections feel forced. 

Inevitably, Tillman is forced to cram the biggest moments of Biggie’s life into a short time frame, neglecting many of the subtleties of the rapper’s life. 

The feud with Shakur is largely whitewashed, making Biggie look like a confused bystander despite the fact that he responded aggressively to the feud in real life. 

Of greater consequence is the obvious effort to excuse the rapper’s more questionable behavior. 

At times the view is unflinching – he is portrayed as a neglectful father, a philandering husband and both verbally and physically abusive. 

Of course, in the film’s context, these are all just missteps by a good guy. 

The script shoehorns an obvious redemptive arc into the story, making it seem as though Biggie suddenly matured and gained perspective just in time for him to die properly. 

This even extends to his music – one scene shows him listening to a positive song, indicating a new direction and message for his music. 

The fact that his last album contained just as many violent fantasies and gangster rhymes is not mentioned. 

It’s not quite deification, but it is unsatisfying. 

A darker and more complex portrayal of such a multi-layered performer would have been more interesting.

The one consistent strength of the film is that it manages to capture hip hop as it was – the beginnings of the multi-million dollar industry that dominates the pop-culture scene today. 

Long-time fans will recognize the various cameos of players and moments in the mid-90s hip-hop scene (including Suge Knight’s speech at the Source Awards, and a hilarious two-second glimpse of Craig Mack). 

The music scenes are uniformly spectacular, with many classic songs being performed in full. 

The soundtrack features well-known staples such as “Hypnotize” and underappreciated gems. 

Despite its many flaws, “Notorious” is an enjoyable look at perhaps the biggest icon in hip-hop history.