Notorious looks back on the day when hip-hop was coming into its seeming own, when telling stories was a way to make order from chaos, as well as money and, as Biggie saw it, mo problems.


Director: George Tillman Jr.
Cast: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Dennis White, Julia Pace Mitchell
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2009
UK Release Date: 2009-02-13 (General release)
US Release Date: 2009-01-16 (General release)
People look at you like, you's the user,

Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser.

But they don't know about your stress-filled day,

Baby on the way, mad bills to pay.

-- Biggie Smalls, "Everyday Struggle"

Notorious begins with Biggie's end. More precisely, it begins with his imagining of his end, something he did frequently -- in private and in public. At last feeling "comfortable" with his life, he says he doesn't fear death. If it's time, he tells his interviewer, "So be it, I'm ready."

And with that, the movie's Biggie (Jamal Wollard) emerges from the 1997 Vibe party in Los Angeles that would be his last. As his car pauses in traffic, another rolls up alongside, and a mostly indiscernable thug with a gun takes aim and shoots. With the camera focused on Biggie's eye -- his sunglasses reflecting what may or may not have faced him as he saw the blast -- George Tillman Jr.'s movie doesn't speculate on what this man looks like, much less whether he was a cop or an ex-con, whether he was hired by Suge Knight or Puffy, or whether he had any particular beef with his target. It doesn't show blood or hysteria or swarming police cruisers.

Instead, the film stops here and begins again, with the fictionalized Biggie remembering his childhood, the "clean slate" on which he inscribed his world, his hopes and dreams. "Where I grew up," he says over a street marked "Brooklyn 1983," "I couldn't stay clean." The sequence is familiar, even evoking the start of Tupac: Ressurection, Lauren Lazin's remarkable documentary on Tupac Shakur (who will show up in Notorious acted by Anthony Mackie, Eminem's rap nemesis in 8 Mile). The sequence -- and the film that follows -- looks back on the day when hip-hop was coming into its seeming own, when telling stories was a way to make order from chaos, as well as money and, as Biggie saw it, mo problems.

Of course, as a child (played by Biggie's son, Christopher Jordan Wallace), he sees none of this. He sees the hustle as a way out of systemic poverty, frustration, and vulnerability. "There were just some things moms couldn't protect me from," he says. And so, after its allusive start, this version of Biggie's story -- produced/okayed by Voletta (stoic Angela Bassett) and Puffy (Derek Luke, who struggles mightily to get out from under this clownish part) -- turns almost immediately into a too-regular biopic. He shows lyric genius on sidewalks, he sells crack, he's arrested, and then saved by his boy D-Rock (Dennis L.A. White), who goes to prison so Biggie can fulfill his promise. He has a child with Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), sex with Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), and a marriage with Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). He tries to save Tupac from shooters at the Quad Studios, only to find himself accused of setting him up. He impresses Puffy, adores Voletta, charms and cheats on Faith, figures out how to be a good father just before he's murdered.

This version, based on co-screenwriter Cheo Hedari Coker's Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G., draws from Biggie's self-inventions, his accumulating lyrics and myths, as well as others' memories. It necessarily shortchanges other versions, say, Tupac's, concerning their mutual tensions or Tupac's paranoia, or Lil Kim's, concerning her own representation. While the Kim plotline is not crucial to Notorious, it and the real Kim's objections showcase both the film's limits andits ambitions. And the fact that the "real" Kim, so famously remade and physically fictionalized by surgeries, now hardly looks like herself from back then only underscores the difficulty of distinguishing between facts and fictions in Biggie's saga. Her complaint and Faith's sort-of response ("I try my best not to think about it") suggests that Biggie's "afterlife" is ongoing.

Like other biopics, this one is pockmarked with episodes already known by fans: Puffy's discovery of Big at Uptown, Voletta's struggle with breast cancer, Suge's (Sean Reinggold) challenge to Puffy at the '95 Source Awards ("If you don't want the producer to be all up in the video..."). That it doesn't sort out such incidents, or even complicate them much, in order to imagine Biggie's inner life, makes it serviceable, a recounting of dates and events, but hardly insightful. It spends more time rehearsing clichés of black thug life than it does representing Biggie per se: he's the occasion for the film's nostalgia more than its subject.

That's not to say any single film can or must try to summarize or think through a life, especially one with such rippling effects. The close of Notorious recalls the funeral, shifting explicitly to Voletta's perspective as she rides in the procession, broken-hearted yet also heartened by the rapturous response to her son's art, life, and legend, as well as his inglorious death. The film doesn’t look at how she and Afeni Shakur went on, both working against and re-exploiting the industry that exploited their sons, that made them products and also granted them possibilities. Yet another product, the movie is another element in the feedback loop.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.