[13 January 2009]
Soul music has “Ray,” the Oscar-winning film about the legendary Ray Charles, and country music has “Walk the Line,” about Johnny Cash. Punk rock got the biopic treatment in “Sid and Nancy.” Even the minor subgenre of post-punk spurred “Control,” about the cult figure Ian Curtis.
Yet hip-hop, one of the most influential and far-reaching musical idioms in the world, has been overlooked - until now.
“Notorious,” scheduled for release by Fox Searchlight Pictures Friday, marks the first studio-produced, wide-release biopic of a hip-hop artist - in this case, Christopher Wallace, known in the 1990s as The Notorious B.I.G. or, more affectionately, Biggie Smalls. The film, co-produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace, traces Biggie’s life from his drug-dealing days in Bedford-Stuyvesant to his sudden fame, and ends with the bicoastal rap feud that seemingly led to his 1997 murder at age 24.
Known for his unapologetically violent and hedonistic lyrics, Biggie was as controversial as he was popular. Many, but not all, members of his inner circle were closely involved in the making of “Notorious.” His childhood friend Lil’ Cease (later part of the rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A.) served as a sort of consultant to the filmmakers. Biggie’s widow, singer Faith Evans, provided an advance copy of her memoir to her on-screen portrayer, Antonique Smith. The man who first signed Biggie to a record deal, Sean Combs (played by Derek Luke), is the film’s executive producer.
But rap star Lil’ Kim, seen in the film as a jealous rival to Evans, did not speak to the actress who plays her (Naturi Naughton, a former member of the all-girl R&B trio 3LW). Kim did give Fox legal rights to be portrayed in the film and provided some information about her relationship with Biggie to screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, according to the studio. (Lil’ Kim declined to comment for this article.)
Nor did the filmmakers speak at length to Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur, the slain rapper whose legend will be forever intertwined with Biggie’s. Onetime friends who became rivals in a media-fueled war between the East and West Coast rap scenes, Tupac and Biggie were gunned down within months of each other. Both crimes remain unsolved. In the film, which takes care not to place blame directly, Anthony Mackie plays Tupac as a warmhearted but somewhat volatile figure. According to Fox, Afeni Shakur spoke with Voletta Wallace before production began and was “supportive.” (Publicists for Afeni Shakur did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
If “Notorious” is a familiar story of drugs, fame, women and violence, that’s because Biggie’s lyrics - in tracks like “Gimme the Loot” and “Ten Crack Commandments” - established a blueprint that rappers to this day yearn to follow. All of which presented a lot of potential cliches, according to director George Tillman Jr.
His main challenge, he says: “How do you try not to make this movie feel like the VH1 movie of the week?”
One way was to take a gamble on the actor who would plays Biggie. At 6-foot-3 and weighing in the neighborhood of 350 pounds, Biggie was a physically imposing figure. He was also a giant in his field, known for his verbal agility and off-the-cuff creativity. Add to that a natural charisma and unlikely sex appeal, and Biggie became a tough role to cast.
“I saw every big guy in L.A.,” Tillman says of the audition process. “You’d find a guy who could act - but he’s light-skinned. Well, can you get away with having a light-skinned Big?”
Ultimately, Tillman found his man in New York. His name was Jamal Woolard, a heavyset fellow who’d already been rapping under the name Gravy. And, like Biggie, he was raised in Bed-Stuy by a single mother (Woolard says his father died of AIDS). Woolard pretty much had the part from the moment he entered the room, when Wallace spotted him and, she recalls, whispered aloud, “That’s my son.”
The only problem: Woolard, 33, had never acted. But under the direction of acting coach Mimi Lieber, he entered “Biggie Boot Camp,” learning how to emulate the rapper’s hulking carriage and speak with his cheeks full of cotton balls. Woolard also splurged on pasta and lasagna, gaining upward of 50 pounds to match Biggie’s girth.
For Woolard, Biggie wasn’t just a celebrity but a childhood hero. “At that time, I was trying to be a man,” Woolard says. “We all were kids, trying to understand. We listened to Big to try and find out what life was about. We related to his stories about being broke and trying to get rich. When he died, it was like, where we gonna go now?”
Much of the film concentrates on Biggie’s struggle to become not just a rap star but the kind of man his mother (played by Angela Bassett) raised him to be. “Notorious” attempts to humanize a rapper who, with his flashy jewelry and double-breasted suits, presented the classic image of a gangster but was also a husband and father.
“There’s this misconception in black films where we’re not human - we’re the bad guy,” says Wayne Barrow, who, along with his cousin, Mark Pitts, managed Biggie until his death. (The two also helped produce the film.) “You can see beyond the badness when it’s ‘Scarface’ or ‘The Godfather.’ This is no different. They did bad things, but by the same token, they’re sitting in the kitchen stirring up spaghetti, and their little grandchildren are running around.”
He adds: “We’re doing the same things, just in different ways.”
NY RAPPERS: FEUD TO THE FINISH
The feud between the East and West Coast rap scenes in the mid-1990s culminated with the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., arguably two of the greatest rappers.
The Harlem-born Shakur and the Brooklyn-born Biggie enjoyed a casual friendship until Nov. 30, 1994, when Shakur was shot five times while entering Manhattan’s Quad Recording Studios. (In the film’s version of events, Biggie and Sean Combs were upstairs working at the time.)
Shakur survived the ambush, and in an interview with Vibe magazine the following year, he implicated the two men.
In 1995, Shakur entered prison on sexual abuse charges but was released on appeal with a $1.4 million bond paid by Marion “Suge” Knight, CEO of Death Row Records, based in Los Angeles. In return, Shakur signed to the label. The coastal feud was on.
What followed was a series of verbal jabs (Knight poked fun at Combs during an awards show) and outright violence (Shakur’s onetime friend Randy “Stretch” Walker was shot and killed in Queens). Biggie’s song “Who Shot Ya?” fueled the fire, though its release actually preceded Shakur’s shooting; Shakur later released a single in which he boasted of sleeping with Biggie’s wife.
After Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on Sept. 7, 1996, suspicion fell on Biggie and his crew. On March 9, 1997, Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles in much the same way. Both crimes remain unsolved.