Reviews

Notorious

More fan companion piece than galvanizing cinema, this stands at a distance too respectful to get under anyone's skin.


Notorious

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 DVD Release Date: 2009-04-21
Website
Trailer

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.

3

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image