03 August 2009

Movie review: "Notorious" (2009)

On Sunday night, I watched a Netflix-rented DVD of the 2009 film Notorious, which was originally released to theaters on Jan. 16 this year and on DVD on April 21. This is a biopic of the life of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher George Latore Wallace), who was murdered in March 1997 at the age of 24. To this day, his murder is still unsolved. The movie focuses mostly on Biggie's music career; the first quarter of the film centers on his childhood and high school years.

Of course, because we all know that The Notorious B.I.G. is no longer with us, the movie opens with the "ending"...with a scene where B.I.G. exits a Los Angeles party that fateful late night of March 8, 1997. Shortly after midnight, he is shot dead. Then the movie flashes back to Biggie's childhood. This effect is similar to the episode structure of the CBS/CTV police drama Flashpoint.

Biggie's son, Christopher Jordan (CJ) Wallace, plays a young Christopher Wallace before he was B.I.G. Even as a student at a Catholic middle school, the young Chris knew about the hip-hop sound. He and a friend are rapping to Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" at the schoolyard. At home, young Chris's mother Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Lansbury) introduces Chris to his father, George Latore, who had been absent from Chris's life since Chris was a toddler. Voletta and George get into an argument while Chris is upstairs in his bedroom. George storms out of the Wallaces' apartment. Volette tells Chris that his father will never come back again.

As Chris enters high school (according to Wikipedia, after graduating from middle school he attended a magnet school), he gets involved in the 1980s crack epidemic. Rapper Jamal "Gravy" Woolard plays a maturing Chris. In one scene, the high school-age Chris hides a plate of crack cocaine under his bed as he hears his mother coming. Because of the drugs and the street life in general, Chris loses his "good boy" status, as he exhibits during an algebra class one day as he insults his teacher during class. The teacher evicts Chris from the classroom, so Chris goes out to the city to socialize with his fellow gangsters the rest of the day. Chris comes home with a "corny" (in his opinion) country music record for his mother in the hopes of making her happy, but an angry Voletta raises up a letter from Chris's school stating that Chris missed 20 days in one month. Chris argues that he'd been attending school for three consecutive weeks. Then, Voletta angrily asks why she came all the way to the U.S. from Jamaica, only to have raised a bad son. Next, she alleges that Chris hid mashed potatoes under his bed, but Chris admitted that he'd been involved in the local drug trade. Chris's mother throws him out of home.

With all the freedom a bad boy could ask for, Chris gets deeper in the street culture of Brooklyn. He is shown winning a freestyle rap battle, with his playful rhymes, stable flow, and craftful grasp of language evoking cheers from the crowd. But being involved in the less desirable side of life makes him face the music. At home, Voletta is looking over paperwork when she gets a "collect call" from her son out of the county jail. Voletta sternly tells her son to take responsibility for himself. While incarcerated, Chris thinks over all the bad things he's encountered in life and converts them into poetry. He jots down rhymes and ideas in a composition book.

After getting out of jail, Voletta hugs Chris for a warm welcome home, and Chris meets his baby daughter, T'yanna (Taylor Dior), who was born by his girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell). To support his new daughter, Chris finds a way to make a living: rapping. With friends Damion "D-Roc" Butler (Dennis White) and Jason "Lil' Cease" Lloyd (Marc John Jeffries), Chris records a demo tape, "Microphone Murderer". Chris then meets producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) from Uptown Records. Combs seems hostile to Chris's lifestyle: Combs would sign Chris only if Chris gave up drug dealing. Chris disobeys; he and D-Roc go out to the street again. Chris sells a man crack vials that he hid in his mouth; however, an unmarked police vehicle blasts its sirens and takes the duo by surprise. The plainclothes police officers chase Chris and D-Roc down the street and into an alley and take them into custody. Chris tries to discard his illegal gun, but the police find it anyway. Because he wants and believes that Chris can succeed as a rapper, D-Roc takes the blame for the gun and crack. D-Roc knows well that Chris could be locked up for nearly a decade for this.

More disadvantages come for Chris's life: Uptown lays off Combs, and Chris's mother has breast cancer. Chris suffers from depression until Combs establishes his own label Bad Boy Records. Chris begins performing as "The Notorious B.I.G.". He makes his debut at the 1992 Howard University Homecoming concert. The crowd appreciates his song "Party and Bullshit", but for some reason a fight breaks out on stage. Luckily, Biggie's rhymes save the crowd from erupting into a riot. He then begins recording his debut album Ready to Die, to be released in 1994. Combs and other producers criticize him for being "too street" and assert that the record will tank if the mainstream can't handle it. This leads to Biggie recording "Juicy", which samples old-school R&B single "Juicy Fruit" by Mtume. While recording Ready to Die, Biggie meets Kimberly Jones, the rapper known as Lil' Kim and played here by former 3LW singer Naturi Naughton. He ends up having a relationship with Kim but dislikes her style of rapping. Tensions between the two rappers lead to Biggie assaulting Kim in studio.

Ready to Die becomes a bestselling album, and the movie shifts into a slideshow of various images of Biggie's success. In August 1994, Biggie marries singer Faith Evans while ignoring Jan and T'yanna in the process. Tensions arise when Jan calls Faith, who confronts Biggie in a hotel. Another woman was in the room, and the two women get in a catfight. Faith and Biggie reconcile despite the incident.

It's 1995, the year after Ready to Die was released. The tides turn against Biggie's favor, as the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry has begun. Initially, Biggie befriended West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). However, Tupac gets shot in a recording studio and blames Biggie and crew. At the Source Awards ceremony that year, Suge (pronounced "shoog") Knight, CEO of Tupac's label Death Row Records, makes a speech dising Bad Boy Records. This sentiment has spread nationwide; the movie cuts from the regular plot to showcase various news reports and "citizen on the street" interviews where average hip-hop fans takes sides and obscenely defame the East or West coasts. Back in the regular plot, Biggie takes the stage one time with the audience booing him, and some people get into fights in the stands. However, they cheer his new track, "Who Shot Ya?" (released on Biggie's 1999 posthumous Born Again and 2006 remaster of Ready to Die). Tupac responds harshly to that track with his own "Hit 'Em Up" (a B-side to the "How Do U Want It" single; the track was released to Pac's posthumous Greatest Hits CD). Then the media gets involved with this mess with a smear of its own. A friend of Big's shows Biggie a magazine cover with Tupac and Faith Evans together. In yet another allegation of infidelty (this time on Faith's part), Biggie confronts Faith, only to realize it was indeed the magazine's fault. Tupac is shot dead in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Biggie and his mother talk about it. To deal with his ongoing woman issues, Biggie and Faith visit Jan and T'yanna; during the visit, Biggie teaches T'yanna to be strong and never let a man call her a bitch.

Despite his mother's warning, Biggie goes to Los Angeles to promote his latest effort, Life After Death. After the promo party, Biggie and crew ride to the hotel. At a stoplight, Biggie's life ends when a gang member from a neighboring Chevy Impala shoots Biggie four times. The crowd of fans who came to greet Biggie scatter around the sidewalks like crazy. Biggie's crew rushes him to the hospital, but it's too late. Biggie's funeral is held, and during the funeral procession, fans mourn and celebrate his music. Life After Death was released on March 22, 1997, two weeks after Biggie's death.

Despite a budget only half of that of the Eminem biopic 8 Mile (Notorious ~ $20 million; 8 Mile ~ $41 million), Notorious still effectively narrates the short yet powerful life of The Notorious B.I.G. from childhood to rap star to death. Jamal Woodward applies his background as a mixtape rapper to portray one of the most talented MC's to have graced the music industry. The film also depicts the street culture articulately and realistically, especially in one instance where Biggie's friends encourage him to be beyond the "mixtape rapper" and the NYPD's unmarked patrol vehicle that caught Biggie and D-Roc in the act. For anyone who's dissatisified over the East Coast/West Coast beef, the film puts it out for what it really was: nothing but a media-hyped smear campaign, not really a measure of MC talent.

In this era where hip-hop has shifted from the streets to the dance floors and nightclubs, when "crunk"/"snap music" nonsense like "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" and "Stanky Legg" dominate the airwaves, cable music video networks, and YouTube, is it any wonder why this film made a mere $36 million in the U.S. beyond its January not summer release? And there were critics who derided this film as "Biggie's Wikipedia page reformatted for the big screen" and "half pop fable, half naturalistic docudrama". Overall, critical views were mixed.

Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Writers: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
Rated: R (profanity, sexual dialogue, nudity, drugs)
Run time: 2 hours, 2 mins. (theater version); 2 hours, 8 mins (director's cut, which I watched)

No comments: