Friday, January 16, 2009
"Notorious," the story of Biggie Smalls
He was born Christopher Wallace, but became known in the world of rap as "Biggie Smalls" or "Notorious B.I.G." He started as a straight arrow Brooklyn kid whose mom called him "Chrisiepoo," veered into drug dealing and eventually found a path toward the major money and gangsta glamor that defined success in rap's upper echelons. Biggie often is credited for re-establishing the primacy of East Coast rap, a feat of questionable importance to most of the population, but one that meant a lot the young people who immersed themselves in the Hip-Hop culture of the '90s.
If you go to You Tube, you can see a picture of the real Biggie, posing in front of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Both are gone, the Towers in 2001 and Biggie in 1997. I'm not drawing any parallels between the drive-by shooting of Biggie and the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the photo says something important about the outsized quality of New York in the 1990s -- big rap, big buildings and big ambitions. The new movie, "Notorious," takes a vigorous look at the rise and fall of Biggie Smalls, and does it in an entertaining bio-pic that's well aware of what can happen when street kids find themselves weighed down by money and fame.
Smalls -- played by a rapper named Gravy; a.k.a. Jamal Woolard -- comes across as a young man who seldom seems in control of the events around him, despite his massive size. An imposing figure, Woolard dominates the movie as much as Mickey Rourke dominates "The Wrestler." He captures Biggie's rap rhythms and makes use of his impressive girth to suggest a man/child in a promised land of women and notoriety.
Director George Tillman Jr., working from a screen play by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, backs away from the on-going controversy about who killed Biggie, although the movie spends a fair amount of time on the feud that developed between Smalls and Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), a rapper who came to represent Hip Hop's West Coast. Tupac, who was shot in a 1994 robbery, blamed Biggie for the incident. "Notorious" also provides lots of additional information: Biggie was brought to prominence by Sean Combs (Derek Luke), a rap mogul with a passion for commerce and its many requirements. (Combs served as the movie's executive producer.)
"Notorious" also shows a rivalry that found expression in two of the women in Small's life -- rapper Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Young Biggie, by the way, is played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, the real-life son of Biggie and Evans. Angela Bassett, who doesn't work nearly enough these days, portrays Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mom, a woman who loved him, but threw him out of the house when she learned that he was selling drugs. The real Voletta Wallace served as another of the movie's producers.
How much all of Biggie's story matters depends on how you regard Biggie & his cohorts. If you're interested in this pop cultural phenomenon, "Notorious" stands as required viewing. Biggie captured a feeling of Brooklyn youth in the 1990s. He spoke of and for the streets, and to ignore what happened in Brooklyn and elsewhere is to ignore a part of American life that needs acknowledgement.
To its credit, "Notorious" doesn't try to proselytize for rap. Rather it shows the sometimes glamorous, always-chaotic lives of young men on the rise, having fun, adopting dangerous poses and, in Biggie's case, never really finding a way to make the transition from a youth to manhood. Biggie was only 24 when he died, leaving his story unfinished.
Would Biggie have become yesterday's news by now? Would he have evolved as an artist? We can't really see what the future held in store for Christopher Wallace, but then, it doesn't look as if he could, either. That might be an inadvertent observation of a vibrant movie that invites us into exotic, often-troubling world of Notorious B.I.G. And that's the question the movie leaves us to ponder: Just where was all this talent and energy heading?