01/07/2009 12:00 AM |

Many rappers have had more unusual lives, but in a way it’s the familiarity of Christopher Wallace’s story that makes Biggie the perfect subject for rap’s first major biopic. His meteoric rise and tragic death epitomized the all-too-familiar rap narrative of a hustler turned hip hop great and finally made a martyr for the disenfranchised masses from whose ranks he came.

Notorious, then, is a movie about today’s archetypal rap star story, but it’s also a biopic. As such, one might expect it to offer some new insight into the big man looming behind the gigantic Biggie myth. Mostly, though, Tillman Jr. sticks to a strict chronology of the various hurdles and self-inflicted wounds that marked Biggie’s life. These points on Biggie’s timeline are sometimes tedious, often entertaining and pleasurable–hearing “Party and Bullshit” and other favorites blare through a movie theater sound system makes Notorious worth seeing even if you already know the story or don’t find it fascinating.

For the most part though, you already know Biggie’s story from so many rappers’ childhood boasts, especially his own. Tillman faithfully, rigidly charts Biggie’s progression through those origin stories: the first time young Christopher leaves the safety of his stoop to deal crack cocaine; the formative sidewalk battle rap that tips the young man’s interest from dealing to rapping; the young father’s final drug bust; Puff Daddy’s (Derek Luke) demand for a radio-friendly first single (“Juicy”); Biggie’s falling-out with Tupac; his first encounter with future wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), etc. All these events are also narrated in Jamal Woolard’s uncanny Biggie drawl, as if the stories told in the deceased rapper’s songs weren’t sufficient narration already. Through it all, Woolard’s (a.k.a. Brooklyn rapper Gravy) outstanding turn as Biggie confirms the familiar vision of a young, hard-working charmer with copious helpings of skill, charisma and body fat. He gets plenty of mileage from that charisma too, especially apologizing to and seducing the various women in his life.

Despite Notorious‘s general capitulation to conventional chronological re-enactments, its strong cast of female actors offers a glimmer of fresh insight into Biggie’s behavior. While the (miscast) parts of Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and Sean “Puffy” Combs (Luke) have little sway over Woolard’s excellent Biggie, his mother (Angela Bassett), girlfriends (Julia Pace Mitchell as Jan, Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim and Smith as Evans) and daughter T’Yanna, exert the greatest influence over his decisions. As much as Notorious details the institutional pressures of a music business cannibalizing the young black men generating its biggest numbers, the person behind the Biggie myth, here, is partially sketched through his interactions with a set of stronger, savvier women.

As he chronically breaks their hearts, makes nice and disappoints again, Notorious‘s version of Biggie’s story occasionally diverges from the hustler king narrative and shows it to be a symptom of broken families, abandoned neighborhoods and social entrapment. In one eloquent scene at the height of the mid-90s East-West conflicts, for instance, against the wishes of those closest to him, Biggie indulges an antagonistic Los Angeles audience with a rendition of his Tupac diss “Who Shot Ya?”, thereby stoking the flames that would eventually consume both rap legends. The hustling hip hop star and the loving family man, clearly, cannot coexist.

Opens January 16