January 22, 2009

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Notorious (R)
The life of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., gets the biopic treatment in the entertaining and informative Notorious, a nice little trip down rap music memory lane.

We meet Biggie (Jama Woolard) moments before his death in a drive-by shooting in 1997. (If that’s a spoiler for you then you’re probably too young to see this movie.) He takes us back to Brooklyn in the 1980s when, as a kid (so the movie shows us), little Biggie (Christopher Jordan Wallace — the real-life son of Biggie) spent his time idolizing hip-hop artists and wanting to be more like the drug dealers on the block who had nice clothes and a more confident air about them than the bookish young Christopher. Much to the horror of his hard-working mother (Angela Bassett) who had high ambitions for Christopher, he got into the drug-selling game and had some success but at 19 wound up in jail and the father of a child he didn’t get to meet until he got out and came home.

As the movie tells it, jail gave Biggie a time to work on his music and when he came home he was both back on the streets selling drugs and garnering some fame for his rapping abilities. He came to the attention of a young Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), who told him to make a choice — music or the streets. When a potential gun arrest forced the issue, Biggie chose music and, with Combs’ help, quickly became a popular East Coast rapper.

It’s one thing to remember bits and pieces of the Biggie story — his feud with Tupac, his marriage to Faith Evans, his relationship with Lil Kim, the evolution of his music — but it’s fun to see the story unfold, at least this version of it, in one continuous narrative. It can be hard to remember now that rap has sort of melted into hip-hop which has sort of melted into pop, but once upon a time rap was a thing unto itself and it was revolutionary. I’ve been watching retrospectives and biopics on 1960s-era rockers for years so it’s kind of cool to see something I actually have hazy memories of presented in the same way, with the same sense of the artistic importance of the careers portrayed. (Cool and, of course, disturbing. It’s the kind of thing that makes you smile and then has you searching for grays every time you pass a mirror.) The movie takes this slice of music history seriously (as well it should — even if you weren’t specifically into rap this is the music that provided much of the soundtrack of the 1990s) and gives a really fascinating portrait of the entrepreneurship that went in to building the kind of empires that, for example, Combs and Biggie had by the movie’s end.

Notorious doesn’t shock you with anything new in its structure but it is solid — solid writing, solid acting and story construction that brings us through Christopher Wallace’s life without feeling choppy or like we’re watching some E! True Hollywood Story reenactment. Did you own all of Notorious B.I.G’s albums? Just hear the songs at parties? Either way, his is a story worth spending some time on. B

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity and for drug content. Directed by George Tillman Jr. and written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, Notorious is two hours and three minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox Searchlight Pictures.