By Jesse Washington
HOLLYWOOD — You love to hear the story, again and again: Young boy trapped in poverty, chooses crime over the classroom, rises to infamous heights only to be gunned down at the apex of success.
But the film “Notorious,” a biography of the rapper Notorious B.I.G., transcends gangster-flick clichés because of the outsized talents of the artist and the actor who portrays him. B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, was an artist of unique skill and charisma — all of which is captured in a pitch-perfect, and at times, even moving performance by the obscure rapper Jamal “Gravy” Woolard.
This story begins in the late 1980s, when a young Christopher Wallace (played by Biggie’s real son, Christopher Jr.) is seduced by the easy money being made by crack dealers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. When his mother (Angela Bassett) discovers what the white stuff under his bed really is, she kicks the teenage hustler out, accelerating his criminal exploits.
Wallace does a quick jail bid and returns home with an assortment of potent new rhymes and a new name: B.I.G. His demo cassette ends up in the hands of a brash record exec named Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), and a rap phenomenon is born.
Unlike recent music biopics such as “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” whose audiences may have been unfamiliar with some biographical events, most “Notorious” viewers will know exactly what comes next: The classic hits; the illogical beef with Tupac Shakur, birthing the East-West feud; the twin killings of these gifted storytellers. But “Notorious” manages to add something new to Biggie’s exhaustively chronicled story.
The interwoven stories of the women in his life give fresh insight into Biggie’s music and personality. No matter how bad his behavior, they always gave him one more chance: his mother, Voletta; his baby’s mother; the girl who Biggie plucked off the corner and Svengalied into the sex bomb Lil’ Kim; and his wife, the singer Faith Evans.
With Voletta Wallace as a producer and Combs as executive producer, you might have expected the worst of B.I.G.’s life to be blacked out. But it’s all there and it makes the film that much better.
Woolard, who hails from Biggie’s old neighborhood, could have coasted on his physical likeness and Brooklyn swagger, but director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Barbershop”) wrings struggle, charm and triumph from Woolard’s expressive face. The film drips with authenticity, from the Coogie sweaters to the actual Fulton Street corner where Biggie sold his dope. And the script, written by Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Blythewood, has laughs for days — just like Biggie did.
The only weakness is Bassett, a fine actress who seems out of place and lacks Voletta’s Jamaican accent to boot. Luke effectively mimics Puffy’s exaggerated mannerisms, but there’s not much more to the character than some audacious statements and one hilarious hat. Anthony Mackie as Tupac is never given a chance to show the enormous complexity of the man whose weaknesses doomed both himself and Biggie, and pulled rap into the abyss.
But these are small things in the B.I.G. picture. In the 10 years since his death, Biggie has never been more alive than in “Notorious.”
“Notorious,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for profane language, graphic sex, drugs and violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.