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B.I.G. in Life, Bigger in Death

Notorious (2009)

Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight Pictures

It is fair to question whether the life of Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G., would even be worthy of a motion picture were it not for the East Coast-West Coast blood feud that ended in his death. That’s a blasphemous sentiment to many, and it is certainly not meant to detract from the fact that he achieved success from nowhere or that he was a terrific rapper. It is, rather, an observation inspired by George Tillman Jr.’s intermittently entertaining but thoroughly conventional Biggie biopic, “Notorious.”

The movie stars newcomer Jamal Woolard in a performance of ferocious intensity and unlimited compassion. It charts the tumultuous path of Biggie’s all-too-brief life: beginning with him as an adolescent outsider, transitioning through a period of petty crime and drug pushing, chronicling his professional ascendancy and the strife that led to his murder. Along the way his friendship with Sean Combs (Derek Luke) forms and deepens, and he finds himself a parent several times over, entrusted with responsibilities for which he’s never really ready.

This all makes for standard rags-to-riches musical biopic stuff, save for the fact that Biggie didn’t last long enough to appreciate the riches. Each chapter of Mr. Tillman’s film has been seen before. That includes the depiction of Bed-Stuy gangster life as filled with covert meetings on street corners, the subtle exchanging of money and drugs and lots of posturing. It includes the studio scenes, in which reaction shots reveal how deeply the protagonist’s musical genius has impacted those in the control room. The domestic dramas that play out in the protagonist’s Brooklyn home and hotel suites, the whirlwind high-powered hip-hop milieu and just about all the rest of “Notorious” has that been-there-done-that feel.

In their characterization of Biggie, Mr. Tillman and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker do find an interesting conceit. Strip away the conventional artifice, and what’s left is the story of a boy becoming a man, maturing and learning how to carry himself only as his death draws near. In that vein they get a huge assist from Mr. Woolard, who looks and sounds just like the real person and with his shy demeanor expresses the vulnerability necessary to tangibly set Biggie apart from his world. It’s such a compelling window into the character that one wishes the filmmakers had stopped worrying about the scenery and done more with it.


Opens on Jan. 16 in the United States and on Feb. 13 in Britain.

Directed by George Tillman Jr.; written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker; director of photography, Michael Grady; edited by Dirk Westervelt and Steven Rosenblum; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Voletta Wallace, Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, Robert Teitel and Trish Hofmann; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Angela Bassett (Voletta Wallace), Derek Luke (Sean Combs), Jamal Woolard (Christopher Wallace also known as Biggie Smalls), Anthony Mackie (Tupac Shakur), Antonique Smith (Faith), Naturi Naughton (Lil’ Kim), Marc John Jefferies (Cease) and Christopher Jordan Wallace (Biggie ages 8 to 13).


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