Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Notorious (2009)

Dangerous on trizzack, leave yo' ass blizzack

Our second biopic is also the most recent. It's the authorized story of rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Big Poppa, a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G., a bigger-than-life personality and talent who didn't make it past the age of 24.

What Happens:

The film starts at the end, with Biggie's death, just like Carlito's Way. Biggie himself is our narrator, looking back at how he got where he got.

The son of a single Jamaican, Jehovah's Witness mother (Angela Bassett), Christopher is a shy, bespectacled, chubby kid (played by Christopher Wallace, Jr., his son!) growing up in Brooklyn. He's not popular at school and is in obvious pain over the absence of his father. He finds solace in hip hop, and even begins to write lyrics about his deadbeat dad. He also finds acceptance and status by becoming a dealer during the mid-'80s crack epidemic.

A few years later Chris (now played by Jamal Woolard) finds out his girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell) is pregnant. He's obviously not pleased at the development, but he promises to take care of her. Later, his mom confronts him about skipping school, and he reveals both the drug dealing and the pregnancy. She kicks him out. THEN, he completes the hat trick of at-risk-urban-youth and is sent to jail (the film doesn't tell us why), and he uses his time to write. While he's locked up, baby daughter T'yanna is born.

When he gets out, Chris records a demo tape under the name Biggie Smalls, and through a friend he gets an audience with Sean "Puffy" Combs, a producer at Uptown Records and already a proven hitmaker with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. In a meeting, Puffy tells Chris to stop dealing drugs and that, "By the time you 21, I'll make you a millionaire."

From there, we get the fairly typical A Star Is Born story as Chris navigates the peaks and valleys of fame. Not only do we get to see the rise of his career (apathetic early crowds won over by his charisma, his first album climbing the charts, etc.) there's also ample time devoted to the two main components of the Notorious B.I.G. legend: His way with the ladies and his relationship with Tupac Shakur.

The former finds Biggie to be an insatiable Lothario. He cheats on his baby mama with Li'l Kim Jones (a.k.a. Li'l Kim - more on her later), and then cheats on her with Faith Evans (whom he married after a three week courtship). Oh, and he wasn't faithful to Faith either. In fact the film depicts their wedding ceremony, and shows Biggie tripping over the words "forsaking all others."

As for Tupac, some might be surprised to find that the two icons were fast friends with a strong mutual respect. The film follows them through several meetings, each with a slight change in their interaction. At first, Pac is a mentor (he warns Biggie that things are never going to be better than they are at that moment, and he's pretty much right), then they're equals (Biggie warns Pac to watch who he keeps company with), and then comes the incident at Quad Studios. While Biggie is working on a track, Pac get's jumped and shot in the lobby. He thinks Biggie set him up, and this leads directly to the east coast / west coast feud that ultimately resulted in death for both men.

The film ends in California, where Biggie is promoting the release of his second album. In an avalanche of foreshadowing he has relationship-summarizing conversations with his mom, Fatih, and Kim, before getting a tattoo of the 23rd Psalm ("yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" etc.). Ignoring an anonymous death threat, he goes out to a club and is shot on his way back to the hotel.

At the funeral, there's not a dry eye in the house. The point of view of the film switches to his mother's, and she has a brief flashback of a time right after son Christopher Jr.'s birth, and then she's further buoyed up by the fan love that greets the funeral procession, seeing how much her son meant to people (this is taken from actual documentary footage). The End.

What Really Happens:

In the piece on Selena, I introduced the four criteria for good biopics. We'll use those to go through the ins and outs of Notorious.

1. Believable Actors
When forced to choose, casting directors for biopics should always go for spirit over resemblance. If they can get both, of course, that's the ideal. Notorious does damn well on almost every count. The actors that play Tupac and Puffy (Anthony Mackie and Derek Luke) don't look much at all like their real-life counterparts, but they have the swagger. The others, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, and Jamal Woolard, are all the whole package, with looks and chops. Naughton especially nails the transformation of her character. And Woolard was a find, in that he is also a rapper who both looks like and can reasonably replicate Biggie's flow (more on that later).

2. Truth
The truth is slippery in this film. On one hand, you have the credibility of Notorious being an officially-sanctioned biography, with both Voletta Wallace and Bad Boy Records (a.k.a. Diddy) producing. Then again, are they the best ones to tell the story? This is the pitfall of having family members involved. You get unprecedented access to up-close-and-personal information (and the luxury of casting your subject's son to play him as a boy!), but you also get the a lack of objectivity. Not only do family and friends want to remember the best, they also have a stake in the story being told a certain way.

This shows up in interesting ways in Notorious. The film, as you may have guessed, doesn't shy away from depicting some of the more negative aspects of Biggie's character, especially his treatment of the women in his life. In addition to showcasing his charm, the movie shows the negative consequences of his philandering. It ultimately costs him his marriage to Faith. In one especially effective sequence, Biggie confronts Faith on rumors that she slept with Tupac (who claimed in the raw Hit 'Em Up, "I fucked your bitch you fat motherfucker"). When she denies it he roughs her up and throws a chair across the room. He eventually calms down and apologizes, but she responds: "Maybe now you have an idea what it's like to be cheated on."

The other morals of the film aren't so clear. In fact, sometimes it seems like Biggie's bad behavior is glorified. When he cheats on Kim and ignores a call from Jan in order to smoke weed, drink Pepsi, and participate in a threesome we find the ultimate result is the inspiration for his hit song Juicy. What kind of message are we supposed to glean from this? Also, it never truly seems like his drug-dealing was done out of anything other than a need for self-confidence, even though he claimed in Juicy he was just "tryin' to get money to feed my daughter." Part of being a rapper is creating a larger than life persona, so we can forgive some stretching of truth.

On the flip side, there's some conveniently shuffled or skipped details. Speaking of his daughter, in the film it appears that she's born while he's incarcerated. In actuality, she was born two years later. The film also ignores fact that Biggie never finished high school and was arrested multiple times before and after his prison stint.

The film also has an agenda. Namely, it wants to prove to you that Biggie had absolutely nothing to do with Tupac's death. Now, I tend to believe this. I think both Pac and Biggie's murders were done by hot-headed hangers-on who took things waaaaay too seriously. But the film oversells its message by making it seem like Biggie didn't contribute to the east coast / west coast feud in any way. I find that hard to believe.

3. Defining Moments
Every iconic musician has a story full of key plot points. The Notorious B.I.G.'s life story has a few noteworthy ones. The shy, underconfident kid's transformation into a charming drug dealer and ladies man. The rise of a rap career based on pure raw talent and fortuitous timing and stewardship (from Puffy). The friendship with his only true peer that went bad and the feud that followed. The tragic death.

The film depicts it all well. The coastal feud (doesn't that sound fancy?) is especially well-covered, even including the infamous incident at the 1995 Source awards when Death Row Records head Suge Knight dissed Puffy not so subtly: "Any artist out there want to be an artist, and wanna stay a star, don't wanna worry about the producer tryin' to be all in the videos, all in the records, dancin', come to Death Row."

4. Musical Performances
The bottom line on Notorious in terms of music is that it skimps. Yes, there's a generous amount of Biggie songs in the movie. And yes, it was a very smart choice to use Jamal Woolard's vocals instead of having him lip synch. But in the end music takes a back seat to the other drama. We get some In some ways it makes sense, because that's how things played out in Biggie's life. On the other hand, the only reason anyone cares about the Notorious B.I.G. is because of his music.

That said, there are a couple of magical musical moments. One is a street battle in which Biggie just decimates a braggart named Primo. The other is a concert in Sacramento during the height of the east coast / west coast hoopla. The crowd is quite hostile toward Biggie and Puffy, begging the question: Why would you pay to go see someone you hate? But I digress. Biggie wins the crowd over eventually by wading right into the controversy and performing Who Shot Ya, a boastful tune that was widely misinterpreted as being about Tupac.

But that's about it. The actual recording of Biggie's two albums is woefully under-represented by the film. His second album gets an especially short shrift, with only one (pretty bad) scene devoted to the making of the two disc set. How did his life intersect with his lyrics? Where did the musical ideas come from? How did he compose his rhymes? Maybe only record geeks care about that kind of stuff, but afterall this is a man's legacy we're talking about. In the end that's what he left behind, his music. It deserved more focus.

Questions and Comments:

The foremost question in my mind went unanswered by the film. What is B.I.G. an acronym for? I had to look up to find out that it means "Business Instead of Game."

If conspiracy theorists ever needed fodder, Biggie's two album titles are perfect. The first was called Ready To Die. The second (released after his murder) was Life After Death. If people start having Biggie sightings, I'll take it seriously.

As a high schooler, Biggie changes outfits after leaving home and before getting to school (he mainly adds chains, rings, and fancy shoes) to pull the wool over his mom's eyes. It's just like Stephanie Kaye in Degrassi Junior High.

In the film, Puffy is like a human fortune cookie. Some choice wisdome: "Don't chase the paper, chase the dream", "What don't break a nigga, make a nigga.", and "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves." He's also the one that, rightly, convinces Biggie to record Juicy (Biggie thinks it sounds too commercial): "If I don't have something I can play on the radio, nobody'll ever hear or buy your album. You'd just be a broke-ass mix-tape rapper."

Voletta: "What kind of grown-ass man calls himself Puffy?"

Can we blame B.I.G. for how Li'l Kim turned out? The film makes a case. When he meets her, she's Kim Jones, a smartly-dressed store clerk. They have sex immediately, despite the fact that Jan and Biggies daughter are still very much in the picture. He promises to take care of her. When he finds out she can rap and he advises her to be less gangster and more sexy. Instead, she combines the two. Though the film doesn't show how exactly it happened, we know that he hooked her up with Puffy, she joined Junior M.A.F.I.A., and became foul-mouthed Li'l Kim. Later, when Biggie marries Faith, Kim is justifiably angry and confronts him in the studio about his broken promise. "You said 'I got you,'" she reminds him, and wonders what Faith has that she doesn't. His response? "Look, bitch, stop talkin' all that shit." Today, she's a half plastic ex-con.

Having Biggie narrate the story from beyond the grave is a bit creepy, but it's also effective. My favorite line: "Ask 10 people who Pa is and you get 10 different answers"

What's up with the absence of Mo' Money Mo' Problems in the film? There is a conversation between Biggie and his friend D Roc where Biggie says the line, but the song never makes its expected appearance.

Kudos to whoever decided not to play I'll Be Missing You (Puffy and Faith Evans' cash-in Police-copping post-mortem tribute) over the end credits. I was dreading it the whole time. The better choice prevailed, Jadakiss' Letter to B.I.G.

In Conclusion:

Notorious is far from perfect but riveting nonetheless. The same thing could be said about its subject.

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