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Rapper Biopic Soars (Sometimes)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Even when he was alive, Biggie Smalls (aka Big Poppa, aka The Notorious B.I.G., birth name: Christopher George Latore Wallace) was bigger than life. Almost as wide as he was tall, Biggie Smalls was a man of huge appetites: appetites for sex, money, and fame. Smalls is the subject of Notorious, a biopic directed by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, the Barbershop series) that follows Smalls' meteoric rise to hip-hop superstardom and his premature death at the age of 24, the victim of a still unsolved drive-by shooting in L.A. in 1997.

Anchored by newcomer Jamal Woodard’s performance as Biggie Smalls and a soundtrack drawn from Smalls’ brief hip-hop career, Notorious gives Smalls’ life the conventional biopic treatment, including his less-than-laudable relationships with women and the rivalry with Tupac Shakur that contributed to his death. Tillman Jr. and his screenwriters, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, borrow a page (and a plot device) from American Beauty by way of Sunset Blvd..

The Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) we meet in the opening scene is moments away from his own death. As Smalls seemingly recognizes his impending death, his switches into voiceover narration and flashes back to his early youth, first as a well-behaved, Catholic schoolboy (played Christopher Jordan Wallace, Smalls’ real-life son) to a fast-talking, street-smart hustler pegging drugs. While Smalls’ mother Voletta (Angela Bassett), has big dreams for her son, he just wants money and status and he’s willing to do anything (or almost anything) to get it and hold onto it.

After getting his girlfriend pregnant, Smalls’ ends up in prison for nine months in North Carolina on a weapons charge. In prison, he gets a chance to rethink his choices and jot down self-confessional rhymes. Once he’s out, he rejoins his posse, but almost immediately records a demo. Almost as fast, he gets a meeting with an up-and-coming music executive, Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke). Easily convinced of Smalls’ potential, Combs pushes Smalls to go on tour and working in the studio to lay down enough rhymes for an album.

Smalls’ first album under Bad Boy Records, Combs’ music label, succeeds beyond expectations. He meets and marries Faith Evans (Antoinette Smith), an R&B singer with Combs’ label, but his womanizing threatens their marriage. Smalls also crosses paths with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), a successful rapper and actor who initially mentors Smalls in the hip-hop game.

With Combs and Smalls’ family intimately involved in the production of Notorious, it’s not surprising that the blame for the feud between Smalls and Shakur falls primarily on Shakur (for his paranoia) and on Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold), the CEO of West Coast-based Death Row Records and Shakur’s personal advisor. Notorious also covers Shakur’s shooting at Quad Records, Shakur’s accusations against Smalls and Combs and their ongoing claims of innocence, and the media-hyped feud between West Coast and East Coast rappers that turned Smalls and Shakur into the primary symbols for the feud, ultimately leading to their deaths in drive-by shootings (still unsolved). Whether Combs and Smalls are as blameless as they appear here, however, is left for more informed moviegoers to decide for themselves.

Truth aside, Notorious never strays from the usual conventions and clichés of the easily parodied biopic genre, from Smalls’ difficult upbringing, his poor choices as a young man (all fodder for his rhymes, though), his meteoric rise into the hip-hip firmament, his ambivalent relationships with women and absenteeism as a father, to the almost comical series of epiphanies Tillman Jr., Bythewood, and Coker give Smalls on the days and moments leading to his death. Unfortunately, they often give Smalls and Combs on-the-nose, cringe-inducing dialogue (most of it of the dream it, make it happen, inspirational variety), none of which serves Woolard (as Smalls) or Luke (as Combs) well.

Whatever its faults (and it has a few), Notorious benefits from tight, stylish (if occasionally overwrought) direction by Tillman Jr. and Smalls-the-rapper doing his thing. Woolard really shines when he’s on stage, imitating Smalls’ movements and word flow (he’s less impressive in the heavy, emotion-draining scenes, though). If only Tillman Jr. had taken the hip-hop road less traveled, Notorious had the potential to be more than a slightly-better-than-mediocre, ultimately forgettable biopic. There’s still hope, though: Tupac Shakur’s life story hasn’t made it to the big screen yet.