Biggie's the word this weekend. Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher Wallace but more commonly known as Big Poppa), whose big screen biopic, the George Tillman Jr. directed Notorious arrived in theaters nationwide on Friday to across-the-board deserved good reviews. Biggie Smalls, who has been named the greatest rapper of all time by many, including The Source magazine, has never been my personal favorite emcee (I like him, sure, but always felt he was way overrated and that there are many far better skilled lyricists out there), but I still really enjoyed this film and give it a 3 out of 5 rating. I like most movies dealing with hip-hop, especially a well filmed and acted one like this, even if it doesn't delve as deep in some areas as I would have liked it to have gone.
In a nutshell Notorious is the tale of a drug dealer from the rough and tumble, do-or-die, Bed-Stuy district of Brooklyn, a man of girth with a wandering eye for the ladies but ever respectful of his moms. This man rises to fame (thanks to a shrewd fella named Puffy) and become a world renowned hip-hop recording artist, all the while rapping in his unique flow about the street life that he just left behind. Within his way-too-short life, during which he only got to see the release of one of his albums, he famously got into a beef with the West Coast artist/one-time friend Tupac Shakur (played by Anthony Mackie) that spiraled out of proportion to become the center of the (media fueled) East vs West coast rap feud. And in March, 1997 at the young age of 24, Biggie was tragically shot and killed in LA while leaving a party, his unsolved murder coming exactly six months after 2Pac's murder in Las Vegas.
The real story of how both Biggie's and Tupac's murders are still unsolved to this day, or even the alleged role of Biggie and Puffy in Tupac's 1994 shooting in the lobby of an NYC recording studio, is not the real subject matter of this movie. Notorious, while subjective to a degree, is for fans of the man's music and is for the most part a celebration of the rapper and his hip-hop. And in that respect it fully delivers, with a moving story and a great soundtrack.
Obviously made with much love for the late rapper, the film is done in a mostly fawning fashion and portrays Biggie as a flawed but basically pretty decent guy (if you care to forgive his abusive relationships with women or the scene in which he is seen selling crack to a pregnant woman) and captures his rise to fame in vivid cinematography with newcomer Jamal Woolard perfectly playing the part of Biggie.
In fact, the 33 year old Woolard in real life is Brooklyn rapper Gravy who got shot outside New York's Hot 97 radio station three years ago. Some speculated this was an extreme publicity stunt to get street cred and further his rap career, which it ultimately didn't. Still, he was born to play the part of Biggie. It is uncanny how he captures Wallace down to every minute detail, something reportedly accomplished from the rapper-turned-actor repeatedly studying old video tapes of Biggie interviews and concerts, and memorizing all of the artist's songs. He also gained an unhealthy mass of weight for the part, going from 230 to 340 pounds, to literally fill the part of the Notorious B.I.G.. Woolard also got first hand advice from from the rapper's mother Voletta Wallace (convincingly played by Angela Bassett in the film) who was on the movie set most days since she was one of its producers and as such was instrumental in the unknown actor been chosen to play the part of her son.
The movie, which also stars Derek Luke as Sean Combs, Anwan Glover as Snoop Dogg, and Antonique Smith as Faith Evans (Wallace's widow), has a strong accompanying soundtrack released by Atlantic that's been selling well since the CD arrived in Amoeba Music last Tuesday. And it should continue selling briskly with the inevitable box office success of the film this opening weekend plus the fact that it is a really good hip-hop collection, including rare demo versions of Biggie tracks such "Microphone Murderer" plus tracks with such artists as Jay-Z, Sean Combs, Lil Kim, Faith Evans, Too $hort, and Santogold.
Another companion piece to the new biopic is the other new Biggie release which will arrive in Amoeba on Jan 27th: the straight-to-DVD documentary Biggie Smalls Rap Phenomenon (Gold Dust Media) which features lots of unseen interview and concert footage with Biggie and those around him. Produced and shot mostly by Damion Butler (aka D-Roc) and directed by April Maiya, the raw, uncut and uncensored DVD captures early Biggie tour footage and recording studio sessions. In addition to D-Roc, those also featured in Biggie Smalls: Rap Phenomenon include P. Diddy, Styles P, Lil Cease, Sheek Louch, Datwon Thomas, and DJ Enuff.
In today's newspapers and online you will probably be reading reports of the bloody fight that broke at an "official afterparty" for Notorious in Brooklyn early yesterday morning. The fight left four people stabbed at a party in the NYC borough's Canarsie district at Djumbala Club at around 3:30AM yesterday morning. But remember that, like the recent Christmas Day shooting in a Philadelphia theater during a screening of The Curious Case of Benjiman Button, that the violent incident is not a direct result of the film. Films, like music, don't kill or harm people. Angry people armed with weapons do.