It's difficult to make a biopic about a person who hasn't been dead very long, whose influence is still felt in the culture and whose very powerful friends remain very powerful. And it's even harder to do it when those friends and relatives are involved in the making, providing both accurate details about the person's life and, no doubt, some suggestions about how to make themselves look a bit better.
That's the benefit and the curse of Notorious, the story of rapper Notorious B.I.G. that gains insight from figures like Sean Combs, Faith Evans, and mom Voletta Wallace, but also takes a far too rosy and simplistic view of a complicated life. Biggie, or Christopher Wallace as his mother called him, was clearly a man of great charm and wit, but he was also a drug-dealer, an abusive husband, and a son not always appreciative of his mother's sacrifice. While the movie doesn't shirk from some of Biggie's worst moments, it also fails to ask the hard questions, and writes off the feud that ended his life as a misunderstanding that Biggie did nothing to cause. The movie wants to leave you celebrating the life of this truly fascinating man, but the untold side of the story haunts the frames of this standard-issue biopic.
A handful of performances do a lot to elevate the workmanlike aspects of director George Tillman's movie, particularly Jamal Woolard in the lead role. The same size and shape as Biggie, with the same graceful talent with rhymes, Woolard plays Biggie from age 16 or so, when he's a high school dropout with a kid on the way, selling crack on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) is watchful and stern, and a happy grandmother to the child who eventually arrives, but she can't help her son from serving jail time on drug charges, and from barely evading a second sentence.
Things start to turn around, as we all know, when he gains more attention for his rapping skills, and meets up with aspiring record producer Sean Combs (Derek Luke) to make something of himself. Seemingly overnight Biggie and Combs are the biggest deal in town, hosting parties in their top hats and tails and making record industry connections, including fellow up-and-comer Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).
There's romance thrown in as well, as Biggie moves on from the mother of his daughter to fellow aspiring rapper Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton), a pint-sized fireball who's beyond jealous when Biggie moves on to Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), whom he marries after just a few weeks. The rivalry between the two women simmers in the background as Biggie treats each of them horribly, promoting Kim's career while degrading her professionally, and cheating on Faith with a litany of women he meets on tour.
Fans of Biggie, who will make up the main audience for this movie, know all this already, and even the persistent voiceover from Woolard doesn't add much in terms of insight to this enigmatic figure. We're supposed to be bowled over by his affection for his mother, his genuine appreciation for his fame and his desire to make things right with those closest to him. I know Biggie was all about showmanship and a tough exterior as a performer, but is anyone surprised that actual emotions existed beneath the surface? The banal insights are especially frustrating when it comes to the events that led to his death. Tupac is first shot at Biggie's recording studio, and though he blames it on Biggie, the film takes the stance that Biggie had nothing to do with it. It's the event that sparked the entire East Coast- West Coast rivalry, and the movie's unwillingness to examine it leads you to wonder how much truth still isn't being told.
Maybe in 70 years, when all those involved in the story are dead and the truth can finally be told, a more incisive, less glorifying biopic can be made of the Notorious B.I.G. With Notorious, despite energetic performances from Woolard, Naughton and Mackie and a vibrant soundtrack, all we get is a factory-issue biopic, making little allowance for the quirks of the actual life story it's telling.