Emily McQueen Govan
Past biopics concerning the rap industry have been a largely hit and miss affair, which is to say that 50 Cent’s ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ wasn’t all that great. Eminem’s ‘8 Mile’ fared better, though admittedly it was semi-fictionalised. ‘Notorious’, which some are already touting as an urbanised ‘Walk the Line’, chronicles the life of the famous East Coast rapper Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls. The film charts his rise in fame and the events surrounding his mysterious death at the age of 24.
Born Christopher Wallace, Biggie is brought up by his mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) in 1970s Brooklyn. Dropping out of school at 17 he starts selling drugs on the streets, in order to support his pregnant girlfriend. After a brief stint in prison he is noticed by Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Coombs, who helps him realise his potential as one of the most innovative and significant artists in the history of hip hop, falling just short of R. Kelly.
Whilst Biggie is generally portrayed as a gentle soul, Notorious doesn’t shy away from his infidelities and the other less savoury acts he committed; neglecting the daughter he and his first wife spawned and selling drugs to a pregnant woman. Whilst the film does focus on the famous East Coast/West Coast feud it never fully explains the events surrounding the death of Biggie, and fails to explore the many myths surrounding the conflict.
The musical score is well woven into the film, largely due to the concert sequences and the tracks that marked his rise and fall. It is the songs which drive the narrative and reveal the cultural significance of Biggie’s career and his feud with fellow dead legend Tupac Shakur. The film rests on Rapper Jamal ‘Gravy’ Woolard’s excellent performance as Biggie. His congested delivery comes frighteningly close to matching Biggie’s voice, and he does a terrific job in assuming and inhabiting the rapper’s larger-than-life persona, and undeniable charm.
Naturi Naughton nails the role of Biggie’s lover and sluttish protégée Lil’ Kim, while Derek Luke’s performance as Puff Daddy successfully conveys the shrewd and opportunistic business man. If the picture fails, it is in its portrayal of Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) which somehow fails to capture the explosive and volatile charm underlying the rapper’s conflicted personality.
For anyone interested in the history of hip-hop in the 1990s, old and new fan alike, Notorious is a must see, and looks set to introduce the work of Biggie Smalls to a new generation of fans.