Traditional B.I.O – Notorious review

Notorious – Starring Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Anthony Mackie and Derek Luke. Directed by George Tillman Jr. Rated MA for strong sex scenes and coarse language. 123 mins.

As far as celebrity assassinations go, this one is a biggie. Notorious tells the story of Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G aka Biggie Smalls. Much like his friend and eventual rival Tupac Shakur, Wallace was assassinated in 1997, becoming another casualty in the famous East Coast/West Coast rap war. In his 24 short years, Biggie dealt crack to support his newborn daughter, enjoyed a stint in prison and became one of the highest selling rappers of all time. It’s a fascinating story – so why does it feel like I just watched Walk the Line instead?

Notorious follows all the tropes of traditional music biopics, so much so there are sequences that seem lifted from the hilarious spoof Walk Hard. Director George Tillman Jr doesn’t realise he has one of the most electrifying true stories in music history on his hands. Instead of providing a gritty and realistic look at the Notorious one’s life, he has given us a flashy music video with grimy filters. Tillman seems so afraid of ruining the legend he has just gone ahead and remade Ray.

But enough negativity for now. Notorious is far from a complete failure and is a mostly riveting telling of the Christopher Wallace story. I mentioned Tillman’s superficial music video direction as a detriment to the film as a whole. However, the musical sequences (and there are a lot of them) are full of life. Jamal Woolard, a professional rapper making his acting debut, is an engaging Biggie. There is a real sweetness behind his performance and genuine venom when he takes the mike. Congratulations must be handed to Woolard for making the famous lothario insanely likable, even as he cuts a swathe through the ladies, despite already having a wife, a baby-mama and a protégé on the side. Hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Hip hop fans will be able to immediately identify many of the era’s identities before they have even been formally introduced, thanks to the sometimes uncanny likeness of the actors. Anthony Mackie steals the show as Shakur and is truly engaging in his few scenes. Newcomers Antonique Smith and Naturi Naughton are also eerie clones of Faith Evans and Lil’ Kim respectively.

I am dubious however of Angela Basset’s performance as The Notorious M.O.M Voletta Wallace. She seemed to have forgotten she played the same role in Boyz n the Hood (and much better might I add). I am also suspicious of Sean Combs involvement as the film’s executive producer. The screenplay paints Combs as the most sensible, caring and successful rap mogul the world has ever known. Derek Luke does his best to portray Combs aka Puff Daddy (aka Puffy aka P. Diddy aka Diddy) as the script requires, although it must have been a daunting task. Imagine your employment relying on your ability to imitate your boss. Tough gig.

Notorious is not the greatest version of the Christopher Wallace story. That’s what his albums are for. The film may cover all the important events and songs, but it doesn’t capture the essence. And hell, that’s what made Biggie, Biggie. There are moments of greatness, particularly in the film’s final heartbreaking moments. Sadly, the seemingly endless narration and false grittiness impair its effectiveness. This film knows the lyrics, but not the music.


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