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

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?

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.