A B.I.G. Life Writ Large In 'Notorious'

Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace (Jamal Woolard) in 'Notorious.'	i i

Look Sharp: Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace (Jamal Woolard) strikes a pose in Notorious. Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox
Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace (Jamal Woolard) in 'Notorious.'

Look Sharp: Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace (Jamal Woolard) strikes a pose in Notorious.

Twentieth Century Fox
'Notorious' screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood i i

'The Shot Heard 'Round The World': Notorious screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood at the Los Angeles intersection where Christopher Wallace was fatally shot. Corey Takahashi for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Takahashi for NPR
'Notorious' screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood

'The Shot Heard 'Round The World': Notorious screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood at the Los Angeles intersection where Christopher Wallace was fatally shot.

Corey Takahashi for NPR

Hear the Music

Biggie Smalls isn't celebrated solely for his lyrical invention and inimitable flow -- he crossed over from hip-hop legend to pop superstar thanks to the work of Sean "Diddy" Combs and his production team, The Hit Men. They sampled from forgotten hits by Mtume, Duran Duran, Herb Alpert and others to make new pop anthems. Hear the original songs they sampled from and compare them to the Notorious B.I.G. hits.

The hook for B.I.G.'s "Juicy" comes from Mtume's 1983 hit "Juicy Fruit".

The bass line for "Hypnotize" comes from Herb Alpert's "Rise," put out in 1979.

The opening and hook for "Notorious B.I.G." was lifted from Duran Duran's "Notorious".

Biggie

The brief but remarkable life of the Notorious B.I.G. has inspired a feature film. Courtesy of Bad Boy Records hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Bad Boy Records

A new biopic about the life and early death of a multiplatinum rap star revives the story behind one of Los Angeles' most famous unsolved murders: Notorious is the saga of Christopher Wallace — the man who'd make his name as the Notorious B.I.G.

In 1997, Wallace was leaving a party at L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum, near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, when the driver of a Chevy Impala pulled alongside the rapper's convoy, pulled out a pistol and fired.

In the hip-hop universe, says Notorious screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, "it really was like the shot that was heard around the world."

From Catholic School To Chart-Topping Star

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film co-produced by the subject's friends, his business associates and his mother, Notorious portrays Wallace as a complicated character: a young Brooklyn hustler, then a budding rap star, then a bona fide national celebrity who was always loyal to his mom.

Bythewood's co-writer, Cheo Hodari Coker, followed the rapper's rise, reported on his murder for the Los Angeles Times, and was the last journalist to interview him at length. Like many others, Coker is still affected by Wallace's death.

"How does a Catholic school kid who's a straight-A student become, you know ... a drug dealer, [then] almost by accident become a rap legend, go through all the trials and tribulations of being a superstar ... and then right at the moment he gets it all together it gets snatched away?" he asks.

A Singular Style, And A Lasting Influence

On a recent afternoon, a longtime Biggie fan steps off an L.A. city bus near the scene of Wallace's murder.

"He wasn't just a hardcore rapper," says Marlon Blakley. "People loved him. He was funny. He even says, 'I'm ugly, but women still love me. I'm ugly as hell — but I got Gucci to the socks.'"

For Coker, lyrics like that one — Blakley was paraphrasing from Biggie's radio remix of "One More Chance" — are what continue to distinguish him from other rap stars.

"He's relevant to hip-hop in the same way that Charlie Parker or John Coltrane is relevant to jazz," Coker says. "Or the way that Michael Jordan or Dr. J are still relevant to basketball. ... He put a mark on it, and a certain signature, that is just indelible."

Wallace's influence echoes in the work of pop stars like Sean "Diddy" Combs — his former producer — and Jay-Z, a fellow Brooklynite who's carried on the B.I.G. formula of wit and verve, combining champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

B.I.G.'s celebrity in the mid-'90s came with what the rapper called "Mo' money/mo' problems." His career peaked at the height of what Bythewood calls the "media-induced 'East Coast-West Coast war'" between East Coast rappers and West Coast rappers.

It was initially a war of words and styles. Tupac Shakur represented the wild West Coast sound; B.I.G. was East Coast tradition.

But when Shakur was robbed and shot at a New York recording studio in 1994, the competition, which had primarily focused on record sales, took a menacing turn. Shakur claimed that members of Wallace's camp were involved.

In 1996, Shakur was shot again, fatally this time, in Las Vegas. Six months later, the Notorious B.I.G. traveled to L.A. to promote and work on his music, and to attempt to ease tensions between the East and West Coasts. He was killed soon after.

Notorious doesn't ignore the grittier aspects of Wallace's 24 years, but it does emphasize the positive perspective of family, friends and fans, many of whom are still waiting for an answer to his murder.

"I hope, if anything, this movie spurs interest ... to demand that his murder be solved," Coker says.

So far, however, this is one movie without a Hollywood ending.

'Notorious': Hip-Hop History, Sweetened A Bit

Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) and Sean Combs (Derek Luke) i i

Behind the music: Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) and Sean Combs (Derek Luke) get their due respect as rap visionaries in Notorious. Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox
Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) and Sean Combs (Derek Luke)

Behind the music: Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) and Sean Combs (Derek Luke) get their due respect as rap visionaries in Notorious.

Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox

Notorious

  • Director: George Tillman Jr.
  • Genre: Biopic
  • Running Time: 122 minutes

Rated R: Language, sexuality, drug content and player/game hating.

Damion 'D-Roc' Butler (Dennis White) and Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) i i

Street sense: Damion 'D-Roc' Butler (Dennis White) and Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) made the gritty glamorous, and profitable. Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox
Damion 'D-Roc' Butler (Dennis White) and Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard)

Street sense: Damion 'D-Roc' Butler (Dennis White) and Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) made the gritty glamorous, and profitable.

Phil Caruso/Twentieth Century Fox

Notorious is pretty positive for a movie that opens with its 24-year-old hero declaring he's about to change the world — and then getting shot in the head.

The film is a flashback, narrated by the dead man, Christopher Wallace — aka Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G. — but the narration isn't sardonic, as in Sunset Boulevard, where William Holden acidly tells you how he happened to be floating in a swimming pool with a bullet in him.

Having the Brooklyn-born rapper narrate his own biopic is meant to bring home the movie's thesis — that in death Wallace finally has a mature perspective on his life, that he had grown up at the instant he was cut down.

It's a sentimental view, but this is, after all, a biopic, a genre where myth will always trump fact. One of the movie's producers is Wallace's mother, Voletta, played onscreen with ringing moral fervor by Angela Bassett; it's executive producer is Sean "Puffy" Combs, who was Wallace's music producer and collaborator, and who's played on screen by Derek Luke. Early on, Combs preaches his own form of positivity to his protege:

"Don't chase the paper, chase the dream," Combs urges. "I started off as Andre Harrell's assistant, and now I'm damn near running this place. I'm hungry; you put me butt-naked in the jungle, I'll come out wearing a chinchilla hat and a leopard coat, 10 pounds hungrier from eating them [expletives]." When Wallace warms to the notion of chasing the dream, Puffy promises the paper will find him: "By the time you're 21, I'll make you a millionaire."

For all the constructive spin, Notorious isn't mamby-pamby, because you just can't sugar-coat Biggie's music. The movie has a lot of juice; it wallows in Wallace's transformations.

It shows him as a mom-dominated teen on his knees in his Brooklyn bedroom cutting cocaine, then sliding his stash under the bed when his mother comes in and pretending to pray. On the roof, in a series of jump cuts he changes out of his mother-approved school clothes into oversized jeans, sliding a gun into his waistband.

From there it's a short hop to inventing the character of Biggie Smalls, through whom Wallace transmuted his experiences on the brutal streets of early-'90s Bedford-Stuyvesant into art. First on street corners in rap competitions and then on stage, the movie's Wallace, like his real-life counterpart, comes up with a fluid mixture of braggadocio and bitterness — the hell of his milieu and the thrill of his newfound potency.

"Now I'm in the limelight because I rap tight," he says; the rhymes are dense yet nimble, the voice nasal yet booming and resonant. On stage it didn't matter that he was a fat boy and a mouth breather. In his hats and his pinstriped suits, he was a new American archetype.

Star Jamal Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper himself, is a bit of a teddy bear, a lovable jelly-belly, but his raps have real drive. As Wallace's sometime girlfriend and protege Lil' Kim, Naturi Naughton is irresistibly pert and potty-mouthed — you can picture her getting in the face of the real Lil' Kim.

But Notorious doesn't, won't, connect the dots. It's shallow, at times blindly worshipful of its hero's celebrity. I missed seeing the thinking that went into the invention of Wallace's B.I.G.-ger-than-life alter ego; and I missed the threat that came with his newfound power.

We see Wallace toting guns and cheating on his women. We see his inattentiveness as a father and his unfaithfulness to his wife, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). But this is not a cautionary tale, because the movie wants you to know he was becoming a better man, really.

Here, the vicious rivalry between the East Coast and West Coast rappers isn't rooted in what Wallace does — in the Faustian bargains that said that to become rich and famous in this milieu, you had to exult in violence and sexism. In the view of the movie, it's all a misunderstanding exacerbated by the media: Wallace is the bewildered recipient of threats from Anthony Mackie's Tupac Shakur, a paranoiac who could never get it out of his head that Wallace and Combs wanted him dead.

The lack of tawdry gangsta melodrama is refreshing, but it makes the ensuing homicides inexplicable: The killings of Shakur and finally of Wallace come out of nowhere. Why would such positive musicians, such happy capitalists, want to carry guns and shoot one another?

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Notorious [Soundtrack]

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Rise

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Notorious

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Juicy Fruit

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