DAVE DAVIES, host:
Brooklyn-born Christopher Wallace was barely 21 in 1994, when he released his first album, "Ready to Die," under the name The Notorious B.I.G. and helped launch the East Coast hip-hop scene. Less than three years later, he was killed in Los Angeles in a drive-by shooting, a case that's never been solved. The new film "Notorious" tells his story. It stars Angela Bassett, Derek Luke and Brooklyn rapper Jamal Woolard, in his acting debut, as The Notorious B.I.G. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVE EDELSTEIN: "Notorious" is pretty positive for a movie that opens with its 24-year-old hero declaring he's about to change the world and 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, Violeta, played on screen with ringing moral fervor by Angela Bassett. Its executive producer is Sean "Puffy" Combs, who was Wallace's music producer and collaborator, and is played on screen by actor Derek Luke. Here, Puffy preaches his form of positivity to Wallace.
(Soundbite of movie "Notorious")
Mr. DEREK LUKE: (As Sean "Puffy" Combs) You still hustling? Son, you don't get to twist it. I'm not against making money. My business is about the streets, but my business ain't in the streets. And I can't be building nothing around no artist and get locked up any minute.
Mr. JAMAL WOOLARD: (As Christopher "Biggie" Wallace) I'm just saying, if you got real paper coming my way, I'm out the game.
Mr. LUKE: (As Sean "Puffy" Combs) Don't chase the paper, chase the dream. I started off as an Andre Harrell's assistant, now I'm damn near running this place. You know what I'm saying? I'm hungry. You can throw me butt-naked in a jungle, and I'll come out with a chinchilla coat, a leopard hat, ten pounds heavier from eating them.
Unidentified Man: With all due respect, Puff, dreams ain't paying the bills, yeah?
Mr. WOOLARD: (As Christopher "Biggie" Wallace) His do. Puffy, I don't know about a chinchilla, but if you throw me out into the jungle, I had a…
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
Mr. WOOLARD: (As Christopher "Biggie" Wallace) Maybe in the right hands, I could be like one of the greatest.
Mr. LUKE: (As Sean "Puffy" Combs) How old are you?
Mr. WOOLARD: (As Christopher "Biggie" Wallace) I'm 19.
Mr. LUKE: (As Sean "Puffy" Combs) By the time you 21, I'll make you into a millionaire.
EDELSTEIN: For all the constructive spin, "Notorious" isn't mamby-pamby, because you just can't sugarcoat Biggie's music. The movie has a lot of juice. Directed by George Tillman, Jr., it wallows in Wallace's transformations. The movie 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 oversize jeans and slides a gun into his waistband.
From there, it's a short hop to inventing the character of Biggie Smalls, through which 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, came 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 blooming and resonant. On stage, it didn't matter that he was a fat boy and a mouth-breather. In his hats and pinstripe suits, he was a new American archetype.
But "Notorious" doesn't - won't connect the dots. It's shallow, at times blindly worshipful of its hero celebrity. I missed seeing the thinking, on the part of Combs and Wallace, that went into the invention of Wallace's B.I.G.-er 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, played by Antonique Smith. But this is not a cautionary tale, because the movie wants you to know he was becoming a better man. Really.
The vicious rivalry between the East Coast and West Coast rappers isn't rooted in what Wallace does in the Faustian bargain that said that to become rich and famous in this vicious milieu, you had to exult in violence and sexism. In the view of the movie, it's all a misunderstanding, exacerbated by the media, with Wallace the bewildered recipient of threats from Anthony Mackie's Tupac Shakur, a paranoiac who could never get it out of his head that Biggie and Puffy wanted him dead.
The lack of tawdry gangsta melodrama is refreshing. But it makes the ensuing homicides inexplicable. The killings of Tupac and, finally, of Biggie come out of nowhere. Why would such positive musicians, such happy capitalists, want to carry guns and shoot one another?
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.