Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Biggie, for most, was the greatest rapper ever. Kanye may be the biggest star hip-hop has ever produced, but Biggie is Elvis. So the packed and raucous screening tonight of the biopic Notorious, at the Nike Montalbán Theater in Hollywood was no surprise (Full disclosure: My magazine hosted the event. And far more important, I cannot recite "Juicy" from start to finish).
Hip-hop films have either been in the vein of true school documentaries (Style Wars, Scratch) or MTV-style dramas laced with bankable "urban" stars (Juice, 8 Mile). In between all of this have been a bunch of time wasters that venture into insultingly embarrassing. And as URB alum Brandon Perkins pointed out in tonight's Q&A with Notorious director George Tillman Jr., this is the first biopic of a hip-hop personality (8 Mile was largely fictional, sports fans). Think about that as both an awesome milestone, as well as a sad testament. Has hip-hop culture been seen by Hollywood as so disposable for the last 30 years that this was the first real life story told on the big screen?
In any event, I'm not here to take shots at Tinseltown—or hip-hop, for that matter. Ultimately, it's up to an emerging generation of writers and filmmakers (like Tillman) to start uncovering rap icons and bringing them the immortality only film can achieve. But it's no doubt a tricky task to pull off well. Notorious manages to do it right, taking you along a classic linear path from Christopher Wallace's childhood in Brooklyn to the sad night in 1997. It was that evening of March 9, when he left the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, that was murdered at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. I know I'm not alone in remembering hearing the news when it happened, even though it was 12 years ago.
Notorious hits the mark on several fronts, all of which help take what could easily have been a disaster—a big budget rap saga done wrong—and delivers for both hardcore fans and weekend moviegoers. Die hard Biggie fans—which means pretty much all of his fans—were going to hold any flick under a microscope, or just not show up. Tillman, along with writers Reggie Rock Blythewood and former URB writer Cheo Hodari Coker, definitely recognized this challenge. The director mentioned his commitment to capturing things accurately, from the use of Biggie's actual Brooklyn neighborhood for filming, to the employing of Junior Mafia members, the rapper's extended family and crew. According to Tillman, Junior Mafia members served not only as actors, but as technical advisers, especially during the pivotal scene where Tupac gets ambushed and almost killed at Quad studios in Manhattan. The shooting at Quad left Pac suspicious of Biggie's involvement, eventually leading to the over-hyped but ultimately fatal East/West Coast rivalry between the two.
The final scenes in which Biggie is murdered and the grieving of his mother Voletta Wallace (well played by the almost-too-beautiful Angela Basset), family and Junior Mafia members is hard to watch. I admit, I fought back some tears in those closing moments. The sadness of Biggie's tragedy was a very real situation for hip-hop culture a decade ago, and for many of the fans who will ultimately fill the seats to see Notorious. The slain ghetto superstar is something Hollywood didn't have to invent. And as you watch the (I think) real life and staged footage of Biggie's funeral, as all of Brooklyn and the world tuned in, you can't help but be moved. It was the only time during the screening, that the audience simmered down.
One area everybody will be curious about is how the film addresses the murder at the Peterson. The longstanding belief is that Biggie's killing was in retaliation for Tupac's several months before on the Vegas Strip. But in the years following Biggie's shooting, a deeper, more insidious story has surfaced, dealing with the LAPD and others. It's far too much conspiracy theory for Notorious to tackle, but I hope somebody takes the documentary angle to give this some light. At a Hollywood Bowl concert a couple years back, Mos Def stood on the stage and boldly asked, "Who shot my man, Suge?" referring to his friend Biggie Smalls and the person many believe had at least a peripheral involvement, Death Row founder Shug Knight. Notorious will definitely reignite the passions and curiosity around this unsolved murder.
For me, suspension of disbelief comes when the actors disappear and I just see characters on the screen. Admittedly out of his struggle to find a working actor that could play the part, Tillman cast an unknown to star as the slain hip-hop hero. First timer Jamal Woolard plays the plus size don and he's totally convincing. Woolard had to gain about 50 lbs for the role (And he's reportedly diabetic? That is seriously putting your art first), but is from the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Biggie. You can imagine the outcry had he been from Queens or Compton (sorry, Guerrilla Black). The rest of the solid cast portrayed their real life iconic doppelgangers with varying degrees of success. Special props to Lil Kim's sex gangstress also done nicely (although the real Kim has beef) by freshman Naturi Naughton. Spoiler alert—best rap sex scenes with a big man, ever. Marc John Jefferies (as Junior Mafia's Lil Cease) and the Diddy dancing Derek Luke as Puffy are also impressive. The one definite disappointment is Anthony Mackie's Tupac's character, it just seemed overdone. Maybe I wish Pac could have just played himself.
Biggie, himself, was no Tupac, in the sense that his catalog of interviews and footage is tiny compared to his one time west coast friend cum rival. So our collective memories come in the form of flossy videos, foamy champagne toasts and still life magazine covers. Notorious, while still utilizing its Hollywood dramatic license, does a lot to fill in the story of the larger than life rap icon. Tupac, on the other hand, left so much documentary material in his short 25 years, that 2003's excellent Tupac Resurrection was made almost entirely of interview footage and home movies. See it if you haven't. I doubt any dramatic version could best it.
Any '90s hip-hop fan could attest to the reverence shown to the masterful Biggie Smalls. And anybody dare tempting to portray his story in dramatic fashion had better get the full blessing of the family and friends. Tonight's audience was loud and boisterous, audibly showing their opinions of each scene, down to the love making between Biggie and Kim. Overwhelmingly, they approved. Like a great hip-hop show, this film is best served in front of a crowd (read: not on DVD). This one's definitely for the fans.