It doesn’t take long for Notorious, the Notorious B.I.G. biopic now on DVD, to settle into the confines of its genre: it starts, get this, at the end of rapper Chris Wallace’s life, and then, whoa, flashes back to the beginning of his life and takes it from there, with Biggie (played reasonably well by Jamal Woolard) offering some lazy, gap-filling occasional narration from beyond the grave. The whole film has a sense of familiarity, not with the rhythms of the record business or life in the spotlight, but with the way the bio-film narrative can shape any life into nearly the same shape.
Bill Gibron recently wrote a piece for PopMatters,
”Why Biopics Don’t Work”, about the many perils of the biopic, and I’d submit that music-star biographies are among the worst offenders, simply because they use such pedestrian means to explain or portray something transcendent. This may be why everyone flipped for I’m Not There back in 2007: its delightfully stubborn refusal to explain.
Even within the biopic framework, though, Notorious fails to distinguish itself beyond a mildly interesting imitation of life. It breezes through Wallace’s background without a strong sense of struggle: he’s a little bit picked on as a bespectacled kid; a little bit of a thug on the streets who does a little bit of jailtime; he hones his rapping craft more or less offscreen. These contradictions aren’t synthesized into a multifaceted portrait; they barely connect to one another beyond the most superficial reasoning. Even the presence of Violetta Wallace (Angela Bassett) seems perfunctory, if pointlessly showy. Bassett turns the sainted mother role up to 11, staring into the distance with cartoonish steely resolve, overenunciating at every turn.
For music fans, fun will come from seeing movie-world versions of Biggie, Sean Combs (Derek Luke), Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), and Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), among others, and some of the performances do indeed have a kicky energy, especially Luke and Mackie. The music sequences, with Woolard and others performing in character, have a freedom and electricity missing from the actual drama
Elsewhere, though, the film resorts to talking about Wallace’s talents and skills rather than showing it, with vague chatter about how his collaboration with Combs could, uh, change the world. “Maybe in the right hands, I could be, like, one of the greatest,” Woolard says at one point, sounding like he’s leading the witness. It’s all a little moony-eyed. Notorious so steadfastly depicts Wallace as a decent guy who only deals drugs, ignores his kids, sleeps around, and physically threatens women in the downtime from being a musical genius that his interactions with the rest of the world feel thin and rushed. His relationships with Evans and Kim have introductions and kiss-offs but little actual meat, though the movie does vaguely imply that Wallace was not only more or less irresistible to women in his life, but the inspiration for their own art, too.
In a sense, Notorious makes more sense as a DVD release; it’s more fan companion piece than galvanizing cinema. The two-disc set will please Biggie completists, with separate commentaries from the filmmakers and real-life associates, including Violetta Wallace, both elaborating on the real life details behind the movie. The filmmakers’ track reveals director George Tillman, as well as his screenwriters and editor, as earnest and thoughtful about the mechanics of putting together yet another musical biopic, but both commentaries hint at possible reasons for the film’s light treading: the writers are unabashed fans, while Biggie’s managers and mother are both credited producers.
Elsewhere on the disc, there’s a short piece about Biggie’s lyrics that falls into the same trap as the film: talking heads offer vague descriptions and praise rather than actual analysis or examples. But other forays into the real-life Wallace are fascinating, such as the mini-documentary (Biggie Bootcamp) showing the dialect and choreography coaching the actors received and the three minutes or so of bootleg live footage recreated in the film.
This rawness is mostly absent from Notorious itself. Through the film’s eyes, Biggie’s story amounts to a generic lesson about following your dreams, with a side of becoming a man—the writers even make the startling, narratively convenient claim that Biggie essentially achieved everything he hoped and dreamed in the days leading up his murder. It’s a nice thought, and a perfectly dull one, too; Notorious stands at a distance too respectful to get under anyone’s skin.