Notorious' sets a new standard for hip-hop films
Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight
Hip-hop's heroes rarely transcend their 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps the only two to do so are Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls aka The Notorious B.I.G. Both were killed in the late 1990s.
In "Notorious," the life of one of hip-hop's brightest stars is revisited and we see the making of a new star in actor Jamal Woolard.
Screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Biker Boyz") and Cheo Hodari Coker begin the film with Biggie's murder. Then in flashbacks, the fallen star narrates his life story. Raised by his mother Voletta (Angela Bassett), he proceeded to sell drugs, then during a stint in jail, decided to focus on rapping.
Director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor") doesn't rush through this crucial period in Biggie's life. Instead, he paints a dark portrait of the life he's trying to escape while also providing for his family.
Biggie's rap tapes attract the attention of Sean "Puffy" Combs, (Derek Luke perfectly mimics Diddy's mannerisms and demeanor), who signs him to a record contract. Biggie finds the high life much easier than hustling on the streets and enjoys the money, women, adoration and a friendship with fellow rap star Tupac (Anthony Mackie, "Eagle Eye"). Mackie captures the unpredictable temperament of Shakur, making me wish he had more screen time. The falling out between Biggie and Tupac sparked the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, which arguably led to both their deaths.
In addition to Tupac, Biggie contended with a wandering libido, which makes for some contentious moments with his rap protégé Lil Kim (Nauri Naughton in her feature film debut) and his wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith, "Across the Universe"). Tillman Jr. stages an emotional shot of Faith singing her first major hit "I Remember" and fighting back tears as Biggie arrives in the studio.
Woolard takes the audience behind the veil of superstardom and offers a different perspective of Biggie as a man who loved his family, was deeply loyal to his friends and made mistakes he did his best to fix. "Notorious" is the first drama about a hip-hop star's personal and professional life, rather than the culture itself, and it is worthwhile.
Rated R. 120 minutes.
Cast: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Naturi Naughton, Angela Bassett, Antonique Smith, Dennis L.A. White, Marc John Jefferies, Anthony Mackie.
Director: George Tillman Jr.