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Could be a real surprise hit.
Jamal Woolard Stars in "Notorious."
OPENING WEEKEND: $15,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $47,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

October 13th, 2008: "Notorious" is about the life of rapper Christopher Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. In just a few short years, The Notorious B.I.G. rose from the streets of Brooklyn to become one of the most influential hip hop artists of all time. B.I.G. was a gifted storyteller; his narratives about violent life on the streets were told with a gritty, objective realism that won him enormous respect and credibility. His stories were universal and gave a voice to his generation.

What to Expect: So, in the interests of journalistic integrity, I must confess that before I sat down to research this film, I had absolutely no idea what the whole West Coast/East Coast rap war was all about. I knew it happened, but I couldn't even have told you which coast which rapper belonged to. But hey, this is what the Internet is for, right? Wikipedia to the rescue!

Article continues below

Apparently, in the late 1980s, the New York rap scene was getting no love. All anybody wanted was the new brand of West Coast rappers. MC Hammer, LL Cool J, Dr Dre and their compadres. The paterfamilias of this loose society was Death Row Records co-founder Marion 'Suge' Knight, a man who I believe wins the title of Person I Would Least Want Pissed Off At Me (Anna Wintour being a close second). On the East Coast, a guy you might have heard of by the name of Sean "Puffy" Combs started a label of his own called Bad Boy Records, but Death Row was where all the hits were coming from. That is, until Combs met and signed a young rapper by the name of Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls (cause he was big, see) who began recording as Notorious B.I.G. and soon became a sensation.

As far as I can tell, it all started when some guy made a crack about Compton rappers in his song, and then, as we used to say in the chemistry lab, the sh*t be on. The insults flew back and forth via rap lyrics. Slantwise insults were traded onstage at awards shows. Insinuations about people's wives were made. Rivalries were born and nurtured, none more virulent than that between B.I.G. and an up-and-coming rapper named Tupac Shakur and another newbie on the West Coast, Snoop Dogg. In 1994, Tupac was shot in a recording studio, and he always blamed Biggie and Combs for it, even though both protested their innocence to the skies. Combs and Death Row co-founder Dr. Dre both attempted to quiet the growing unrest to no avail. Suge, on the other hand, seemed to fan the flames. Eventually there were physical confrontations, Mexican standoffs in parking lots with guns drawn, and finally first Tupac and then Biggie were both gunned down by still-unknown assailants. After that, a summit was called to attempt to put a stop to the violence, and it's never gotten that bad since. Blame was thrown about, conspiracies were alleged, and both Tupac and Biggie became rap-culture legends. Biggie was only 24 when he died, which shocked me, and he'd only been recording for three years, but he is largely credited with resurrecting the East Coast rap scene. His influence can't be overstated.

Biopics are a tricky business, and biopics of music legends are especially so, as anyone can see when looking at those that have already been made, which run the gamut from triumphs like "Amadeus" and "Coal Miner's Daughter" to travesties like "Great Balls of Fire" and "Beyond the Sea." We've had some excellent ones of late, after Oscar winners "Ray" and "Walk the Line," though we're still waiting for that long-promised Janis Joplin film that at some point or another every woman in Hollywood seems to have been cast in. Musicians are tough sells for biopics because their lives are often fragmented and non-linear. They pass through various musical stages, they play with different people, there is often substance abuse and lifestyles that make the subjects difficult to sympathize with, and so much of the subject's appeal lies in an audience's taste for their music. If you don't like rap music, it's hard to imagine being that invested in seeing a movie about the life of a rap artist. Then again, there is some precedent for a film like this. Universal's quasi-biopic "8 Mile" starring Eminem did good business; then again, Eminem was actually in the film, and it's also true that his music had a large crossover appeal that might not exist for B.I.G. On the other hand, it's also true that interest in the subject is high; the Oscar-nominated documentary about Tupac Shakur, "Tupac: Resurrection," is ranked eleventh on a list of top-earning documentaries, and both his and Biggie's records still sell.

"Notorious" is clearly a film being made for personal reasons. Two of the film's executive producers are his friend and mentor Sean "Puffy" combs and Voletta Wallace, his mother. There has been some concern that the film will sugarcoat Biggie's life and turn him into some kind of a saint, which he certainly was not. Biggie was born and grew up in Bed-Stuy. He was a smart child, excelling in school, but was dealing drugs by age 12 and continued to do so almost to the end of his life. He had multiple drug arrests and served some jail time. The fact that it does appear to be Biggie's mother calling most of the shots here may lead to some doubt about the portrayal of his life; on the other hand, I don't think there's much cause for sugarcoating. It isn't exactly a shocking revelation for a rap star to have a checkered past and involvement with drugs and the law, and it doesn't seem to hurt their careers much. If anything, it does the opposite.

Some rap fans are decrying the fact that this film has been made before any project about Tupac is even on deck. The widespread belief that Tupac was a more significant rap artist and ought to be honored with a biopic first is certainly arguable, and contingent upon one's taste in rap, but one does wonder why we're getting a film about Wallace now and it took twenty-five years to get one about Marvin Gaye. Some people suggest that the answer comes down to one man, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and one thing: cashola. Combs has a reputation for profiteering off Biggie's death in the form of rights to his music, and some believe that he's pushed this film forward as just another way to wring money out of his protégé's legacy and keep his own name in the media. There may or may not be anything to this depending on whether one believes that this film was championed more by Combs or by Voletta Wallace. From what I've read, it seems as though Voletta Wallace is more of a driving force here, but one never knows.

The lack of big-name stars in the film probably means that the director, George Tillman, didn't go in for stunt casting (like oh, say, bringing in Jude Law to play Errol Flynn) but preferred actors suited to their roles, which is a good sign. The actors playing Combs and Shakur, Derek Luke and Anthony Mackie, respectively, are both familiar faces if not familiar names. Luke starred in "Friday Night Lights" (the film, not the series) and will be seen soon in "Miracle at St. Anna" and Mackie was memorable in "We Are Marshall." I have to say, I don't think either of them particularly resemble the men they're playing, but casting just on physical resemblance almost never works out, so that doesn't trouble me. When I heard that Angela Bassett was playing Voletta Wallace, my first thought was "vanity casting," especially given Voletta's role in the film's production, but I have to admit that I found a photo of Mrs. Wallace taken around the time her son died, and her resemblance to Bassett is noticeable. Bassett is surely capable of the heavy lifting required to play the part.

Then there's the key role, that of B.I.G. himself. The role upon which the entire film hinges. This is always the debate for the director of a biopic. Do you cast someone who resembles the subject, but isn't as great an actor? Or do you cast a great actor who looks nothing like him, hoping that his skills will enable him to suggest the subject enough to let the audience suspend their disbelief? Or will you get lucky and manage to have both, as when Jamie Foxx was cast in "Ray?" This film has the additional wrinkle that the star of the film would have to be able to rap convincingly, as well as look like B.I.G. Fox held an open casting call, inviting men of the appropriate physical type to show off their rap stylings. Hundreds showed up, hoping for a chance at the role of a lifetime. And yet they didn't cast from this call. They cast a young unknown names Jamal Woolard, who is a rap artist under the name "Gravy," who hadn't even been at the casting call. He was discovered and groomed for several months before being cast. Voletta Wallace gave him her seal of approval, citing his charm and heart and her belief in his ability to portray her son accurately. In addition, Woolard would be able to rap when required to. The producers have said that when possible, they will use recordings of B.I.G. himself for his performances, but that Woolard would perform when no recording existed. That could get tricky in terms of continuity, as Biggie had a distinct and recognizable style that fans will definitely be looking for, and they will be critical of imitators.

How much of Wallace's life will the film cover? Tillman says that the story covers events from his childhood up through his death, including his drug use, marriage, recording career and the infamous East/West rivalry that allegedly ended his life. Tillman's experience with this kind of film is limited. His two main credits to date are "Soul Food" and "Men of Honor" which were unremarkable but financially successful films. Neither of the writers have much screenwriting experience. The film is from a screenplay originally by first-timer Cheo Hodari Coker, with revisions by TV scribe Reggie Rock Bythewood. That doesn't inspire much confidence. A biopic is a tricky piece of writing due to the large chunks of time passing and the need for more realistic treatment of dialogue and situations, and the lack of freedom with the narrative. A badly written biopic is torturous and can so easily tip over into melodrama or fragmentary chaos.

In Conclusion: I actually think this film will do well. I'm seeing a lot of interest in the film from the sizable community of rap fans, and even from moviegoers who don't necessarily care about rap but are interested in this man's life. It's a subculture that a lot of people don't have personal experience of, and is therefore interesting. The success of "8 Mile" and the interest in Tupac's life, as evidenced by endless documentaries and recording releases about him, and the continued interest in Biggie's life, could provide a lot of motivation for people to see the film. If Woolard's performance really sells the film, and it has to for it to have a hope, it could be a real surprise hit.

Similar Titles: Ray, Walk the Line, Soul Food
January 16th, 2009 (wide)
April 21st, 2009 (DVD)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

George Tillman Jr.

Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Jamal Woolard, Tristan Wilds, Antonique Smith

Total: 21 vote(s).

Drama, Special Interests

Click here to view site

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content.

122 min




Notorious at Trailer Addict

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