Putting the big man on the big screen
The funniest moment comes after the film ends and the credits begin to roll. You’ve just watched two hours on the rise and fall of Christopher Wallace AKA Notorious B.I.G., AKA Biggie Smalls, AKA Big Poppa AKA “Christy, come in, …
The funniest moment comes after the film ends and the credits begin to roll. You’ve just watched two hours on the rise and fall of Christopher Wallace AKA Notorious B.I.G., AKA Biggie Smalls, AKA Big Poppa AKA “Christy, come in, your tea is poured out!”. You’ve followed him from growing up on the fat-lace streets of Brooklyn to watching him bringing the bling to the penthouses. You’ve watched how George Tillman Jr’s film has painted Biggie’s mentor and hypeman Sean Combs as the ultimate court jester. The credits start to roll and then you see it. “Executive Producer: Sean Combs”. Hey, who said that Diddy doesn’t have a sense of humour?
Most of the time, Hollywood tends to exaggerate hip-hop’s excesses and caricatures as a way of making up for not understanding the game or the players. One of the very worst examples of this was when Jim Sheridan went mano-a-mano with 50 Cent for Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, a movie which left a bad taste in the mouth, but which allowed the Hector Grey of hip-hop to tick off another box is his How To Be A Mogul handbook. Sometimes, they get it right – 8 Mile worked because director Curtis Hanson played to hip-hop’s core strengths and didn’t seek to romanticise Eminem’s tale – but most times, the films miss the point and then some.
To be fair, Notorious hits the target more often than not. Newcomer Jamal Woolard nails the central role with a mixture of boyish glee and hustler weight, getting the rapper’s mix of swagger, strut, sensibility and appeal just right. Woolard appears to acknowledge that Wallace was a larger-than-life character in every sense, but also one who knew that some of this persona was his suit of armour, his way to protect himself from other hustlers and players. At the same time, Woolard also captures another side to Biggie, not so much the rapper with a heart of gold but rapper with a twinkle in his eye, especially when it came to the ladies. Only problem in this regard was that Biggie never quite knew, so to speak, when to hold them or when to fold them.
The story too doesn’t veer too far from the real deal, showing Biggie as a boy moving out from under his mother’s thumb to becoming a low-level, streetwise dealer. A stint in prison sees him filling a couple of notebooks with rhymes as he realises there’s more to life than slinging rock and decides to sling rhymes based on the life of a hustler instead. Enter Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke is excellent in the role) who sees in Biggie a way to use the folk-lure of the streets to sell loads and loads of records. For Biggie, the stage, the studio and the microphone become his way out and he gets to leave the streets by rhyming about those streets.
So far, so American Dream and Notorious does fine when it is dealing with that over-arching tale of a young kid making his way to the top, the tale you’ve heard a million times before. But when it comes to Big Poppa’s relationship with Tupac Shakur, such broad brushstrokes just won’t, can’t and don’t work. Obviously, there is no chance that Anthony Mackie’s Tupac is going to outshine Biggie on this run-out, but there’s little room given to exploring how and why the relationship between these one-time friends when they were young bucks on the circuit turned so sour so fast. Given how much this relationship had to do with Biggie’s eventual demise, you’re left wondering just why the film doesn’t spend more time looking into the cracks. And the less said about the terribly naïve and simplistic way Notorious treats the whole overwrought West Coast-East Coast beef the better.
Still, Notorious does go some way to recasting Biggie as more than just Puffy’s creation. Tillman Jr deserves props for capturing a complex, smart, ultimately likable character whose only real crime was to have got caught up in a spat which was not of his making. The music, naturally, leaves you wanting more.
Notorious open in Irish cinemas on Friday. Trailer for the film and video for Jay-Z/Santogold’s “Brooklyn We Go Hard” from the soundtrack follow