Check Out: Notorious

Hip hop is all grown up. Later this year, Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas’ will walk into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Last year, Jay-Z and Mary J Blige played to well-dressed, middle-aged crowds on an arena tour reminiscent of rock nostalgia shows by groups like U2. Perhaps most telling of all, VH-1 has established itself as television’s best source for hip hop entertainment, dedicating an increasing number of their goofy little list-based shows to the topic and even throwing a yearly award show bash where gray-haired legends and fans hobnob and talk about where the genre went wrong. Hell, the president of the United States is open about his love for rap. And last weekend rap broke down another barrier to established legitimacy with the release of its first big budget Hollywood biopic.

For better or worse, Notorious covers all the bases expected in films like this, condensing the artist’s life into a two hour coming-of-age morality tale. While the short life, and even shorter career, of the protagonist means the filmmakers don’t have to cover quite as much ground as on some similar pictures, the very nature of the biopic makes it necessary to gloss over most elements of the story.

The filmmakers benefited from the fact that the events of the story happened relatively recently, by utilizing a number of first-hand sources. Sean “Puffy” Combs executive produced the project and Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, also found her way into the credits. But by far the most interesting connection is C.J. Wallace, Biggie’s son, who portrays his father as a snot-nosed eleven-year-old, dis’d by the girls and abandoned by his dad. Little Biggie comes across as fragile, lovable, and a little pathetic, finding solace in his stereo and scribbling PG-rated tirades against his absent father in his notebook.

Casting the full-grown (emphasis on “full”) Christopher Wallace created a little more of a challenge. Open auditions were held and a wide variety of rappers, actors, and nobodies tried out, including Beanie Siegel. In the end, the role was given to Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper who goes by the name “Gravy”. Woolard’s previous claim to fame was being shot outside Hot 97’s studio and subsequently having his music banned from the station’s airwaves.

Where Notorious struggles is in its insistence to follow tired biopic clichés. Christopher Wallace joins the ranks of artists whose lives can seemingly be divided into four predictable segments:

1) Pesky, lovable and sad child who seems to have all the chips stacked against him. Usually has daddy issues.

2) Misunderstood teenager/young adult who uses questionable means to scrape by, all the while pursuing a misguided career in music.

3) Young adult hits it big and changes old habits, but soon becomes a monster as the money and fame go to his head.

4) In the waning days of his life, everything clicks for the protagonist. He makes right with all those he wronged and he learns a valuable lesson on the meaning of life.

That’s Notorious in a nutshell. It’s also Ray and Walk the Line and any number of other films. The life of the artist is turned into a coming-of-age morality tale through which the audience is intended to learn life lessons right along with the hero.

On the one hand, there’s nothing really wrong with this. The heroes of these films are torn between good and evil, just as we all are, and their humanity is brought out in the movies. People are not all good or all bad and films like this bring that out. The problem is that they do not go far enough. Within each quadrant of the artist’s life he is fenced in. Biggie as a child is a perfect angel. Biggie as a star is an unforgivable beast. And of course, as he approaches his final days, once again Biggie can do no wrong. The artist’s humanity is twisted in order to achieve the ultimate goal of teaching a lesson. In this case the lesson is that Biggie “became a man” before he died. Which means that with about fifteen minutes left in the film he just all of a sudden starts doing the right thing in every single situation all the time. The catalyst to this remarkable turnaround is the death of Tupac.

Now I am certainly willing to believe that the death of Tupac forced Biggie to rethink his priorities, and it seems likely that he was on the right path to getting his life together, but come on….was Life After Death really that much more mature of an album than Ready to Die? Yes, people change, but they don’t go from being all bad to all good in a matter of weeks. They don’t go from being all bad to all good ever.

Of course, this is all just a minor squabble. Notorious is actually a wildly enjoyable two hours that I would recommend to any hip hop fan. The acting is good and the music is better. And I truly do want to believe that the moment Biggie first rapped “Juicy” in the studio was exactly the way it was portrayed in the film.

So why did I spend so much time discussing what I didn’t like about a movie I liked? Because I’m not a movie critic.

For all the emotion manufactured by the filmmakers, one thing could not be made up. In the film’s closing scene, as Biggie’s body is being transported to his final resting place, a crowd of people gathers along the Brooklyn streets to see him off. In the words of Voletta Wallace, who provides a voice-over, “Then somebody turned on a radio.” Twelve years later, they are still dancing.

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