Movie Review – Notorious (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Notorious is a biopic of Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, the New York City-based 1990s rap artist who recorded under the stage name The Notorious B.I.G. Wallace was killed in 1997 at the age of 24 in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. His murder remains unsolved.
The scenario streamlines and reorganizes his biography. Wallace had a short but eventful life, and the streamlining at least was likely a necessity. As it is, the film relies heavily on a voiceover written in the guise of Wallace telling his life story to accompany the dramatization. The voiceover is part mature reflection, part filling in the gaps.
Last week I reviewed Clint Eastwood’s new film Gran Torino. There is a surprising congruity of subject matter between that film and Notorious. Both are concerned foremost with the question of what it means to be a man in contemporary urban America, and both define a pressing social need for older male role models. Eastwood’s film examines the issue through a mentor-student relationship that develops between his character and a fatherless teenager. In Notorious, Wallace and his friends lament that their fathers are not there (they have abandoned their children or died violent, early deaths) to teach them how to be men. The alternative models they were left with– their peers and urban popular culture– have failed them.
The narrative trajectory of Wallace’s life as depicted in the film is his growth to manhood. While the film covers the main points of his career as a performer and recording artist, its focus is on his gradually acquired emotional and moral maturity. It presents Wallace’s music, based in semi-autobiographical raps, as primarily a means for him to work through his feelings about his life. Wallace’s relationships with women also are developed around this theme: the close bond with his mother that is tested by his drug-dealing during his high-school years; Jan, his high-school girlfriend and mother of his daughter; Faye, an R&B singer with whom Wallace had a failed marriage and a son; and musical collaborator and on-again, off-again lover Lil Kim.
The similarities to Gran Torino end with the content. Where Eastwood favors the invisible directing style of classic Hollywood studio films, Notorious director George Tillman Jr. embraces the aggressive camera movements and shot angles, rapid editing, and color effects common to contemporary thrillers and action films. The film’s visual aesthetic is keyed to its content; the disorienting visual effects are, if not strictly excluded from, certainly much less pronounced in the scenes of domestic life than in the scenes of life on the street, musical performance, and bad boy lifestyle.
Angela Bassett as Wallace’s mother and Derek Luke as artist-producer Sean “Puffy” Combs have top billing. Wallace is played by an up-and-coming rapper named Jamal Woolard in his film debut. Woolard stands up to Bassett and Luke surprisingly well.
Oddly enough though, I thought him less successful in the performance scenes than in the dramatic ones. The film failed to convince me of The Notorious B.I.G.’s significance as an artist (as opposed to the pop culture significance that it successfully argues). I can imagine several possible contributory reasons for that failure, including the abbreviated raps necessitated by time constraints; Woolard’s inability to persuasively simulate Wallace’s talent and charisma; the film’s relatively low interest in that aspect of its subject’s life story; and the fact that my own near-total lack of interest in hip-hop meant I had to rely entirely on the film to establish the musical context for Wallace’s work.