16 March, 2009Issue 8.8Film & TVMusicThe Arts

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Making Biggie Small

Rebecca Rosen

notoriousGeorge Tillman Jr.
Fox Searchlight, 2009
123 minutes

To many who memorialise the 1990s American rap scene, Notorious B.I.G. was, to borrow his own words, “the greatest there ever was”. Born Christopher Wallace, Notorious B.I.G. (or Biggie Smalls) was at once a homegrown poet of the Brooklyn streets and a larger-than-life critic of the very industry that brought him monumental success. From the start, he was also an artist prepared to confront his own demise. In one of many eerily prophetic songs he wrote about his own death, Biggie said: “I’m ready to die, tell God I say hi.”

Biggie’s lyrical predictions were realised in 1997, when he was killed in a drive-by shooting at the age of 24. Upon his death, Biggie joined Tupac Shakur (shot at 25 a year earlier) as a martyr of the East Coast-West Coast rap feud and a potent emblem of the triumphs and fatal excesses of 1990s rap music.

Notorious is the long-awaited biopic of Wallace’s life. Although ostensibly a Biggie-focused film, a large part of Notorious is devoted to the Tupac-Biggie feud. Tupac’s death in particular prompted an almost Kennedy-like media obsession, with some postulating that Biggie played a part. Notorious is executive producer Sean “Diddy” Combs’s attempt to match the Tupac devotion—and, in typical fashion, to cash in on it—by framing Biggie’s life as a classic conversion narrative. In this version, a loveable Biggie travels from sin to success and redemption. The West Coast conspirator’s bullet ends his life at its peak.

In framing Biggie’s life as a redemptive journey, Notorious joins the succession of similar biopics that have become a hallmark of theatergoing. From La Vie en Rose to Milk and Selena, the biopic tends to chronicle a public figure’s journey from humble, oppressed roots to success; he or she then triumphs, either to fade into obscurity or be cut down in the prime of life. The genre is particularly fitting for musicians, providing an elegiac form for notables who are often remembered for musical snippets rather than epic statements or lives. As the audience witnesses the musician’s rise to fame, the pain they feel in loving an artist thwarted by early death is assuaged by the sense that they are soaring upwards through a life fully lived.

Notorious follows this template, so it should, in theory, be the perfect tribute. The stuff of Biggie’s life is ripe for a biopic-style resurrection, and much of his music—and hence, our soundtrack—concerns his passing and legacy. (This sentiment is best encapsulated in the titles of his two most famous albums, Ready to Die and Life After Death, that latter of which was released posthumously).

But the film fails to deliver on the promise of epic fulfilment. Notorious plays more like an ill-conceived mash-up between a low-budget music video and a Behind the Music special than the conceptually rich biography it could have been. The film might also be overly commemorative; the death foretold in Biggie’s flashback narration and suicidal musings saps the remaining story of any life.

Perhaps most importantly, for an homage to a musician, there is surprisingly little music. Notorious pales in comparison to Selena, the critically acclaimed biopic in which the slain musician’s most beloved songs are interwoven with her rise to fame. By that film’s end (the obligatory candlelight vigil), the audience has grown to love Selena’s work. Notorious viewers searching for a similarly satisfying intercut montage will have to go elsewhere. “Juicy” hardly lifts the gloom of impending death that hovers above the film. “Hypnotize” is featured twice, at the opening and as a prelude to Biggie’s death, while “One More Chance/Stay With Me”, a dirge-like ballad, sets a somber tone. And where is “Mo Money Mo Problems”, the rapper’s catchphrase song? Buried in a crowd scene. The film has Biggie express the song’s sentiment once—frustratingly, Puffy gets to utter most of the aphorisms—but it’s not enough to save Notorious from its myopically maudlin overtones.

Why not feature “Mo Money”, Biggie’s most danceable tune, more prominently? Because if Notorious is to be a conversion narrative, Biggie’s success and redemption cannot be separated. Although Biggie knew cold, hard cash could attract enemies, the film (quickly beginning to feel like Puffy’s film) embraces wealth as a sign of growth, not as a sign of an increasingly problematic life. Money is in almost every shot: it is in the license plates of busted cars and the golden leaves that frame young Chris’s Brooklyn window; in the sparkling marquee of a “CHECKS CASHED” sign above the street where Chris is dealing drugs and in the earrings of every woman at his funeral.

The only color dimming all this green is the crimson red of Death Row’s Suge Knight, first seen posturing ominously in the colour of the Bloods gang at the SOURCE Awards. Despite a limp critique of the media’s role in the East-West feud, the film goes on to lend credence to the Death Row-Bloods theory of Biggie’s assassination, with a red-coated henchman eyeing the rapper outside his LA release party. As Biggie drives away on his final trip, the traffic light switches from yellow to red, and Biggie turns to face his killer.

The ensemble cast mesh well, but there are few standout performances. Angela Bassett is underused as Biggie’s devoted mother, and an enthusiastic Derek Luke is so much better looking than his real life counterpart that it takes a minute to realize you are watching a young Puffy. The exception is Lil’ Kim, portrayed by Naturi Naughton. Her talent is palpable, and her furious responses to Biggie’s slights are some of the only genuine performances in the film. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by over-the-top sex scenes, which seem to stand in for a more thoughtful take on the excesses of 90s rap culture.

As our protagonist, Jamal Woolard fills Biggie’s shoes, but only size-wise. Biggie Smalls could negotiate his street-dealer rapper and teddy bear personas, but the film sticks to the softie image. Woolard’s portrayal is perpetually sleepy; at points where he might yell or laugh, he plays it straight, pursing his lips. Puffy seems to move most of the action, making the well-known, non-musical episodes of Biggie’s life feel empty. The young Chris deals crack to a pregnant lady, and we neither approve nor condemn. He cheats on and beats various women, and it’s unconvincing. He just doesn’t seem like the jealous, abusive type—but then, he doesn’t seem to have much of a personality at all.

In the film’s most moving scene, Biggie’s funeral procession, his mother’s utterances of grief and pride are interspersed with original footage of fans lining the streets of Brooklyn, clapping and dancing to his songs. Details like this evince a heartfelt dedication to Wallace’s memory. Though hampered by poor production values and a cramped script, the love comes through.

However, even covered in gold chains, the Biggie Notorious gives us is more of a pawn than the screen-filling presence fans knew him to be. One could easily view the arc of Biggie’s life as following the predetermined path of success and destruction that the biopic formula (and Puffy’s adulation) set out for him, but Notorious B.I.G. deserves more credit. Biggie Smalls was beloved for his world-weary brand of hedonism and fresh lyrical style, not just his end. The movie is a faithful rendition, but it isn’t big enough.

Rebecca Rosen is reading for an MSt in English at Jesus College, Oxford.