It’s always a somewhat dicey proposition to expect a Hollywood biopic to give you anything close to the unvarnished truth. The chances of honesty diminish when any of the subjects of the film are still alive. (“Charlie Wilson’s War,” for instance, had to jump through hoops to vindicate characters who are not only still with us but also rich enough to hire a team of lawyers.)
“Notorious,” the life story of legendary rapper Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, may have one of the most stacked decks of any recent cinematic biography; two of the main figures in Wallace’s life — his mother, Voletta Wallace, and his producer, Sean Combs — aren’t just characters in the movie. They’re also producers.
So as you can imagine, “Notorious” presents Mrs. Wallace (played by Angela Bassett) as hard-working, honest, courageous and loving, and Combs (Derek Luke) as driven, ambitious, intelligent and devoted. I suppose we should be thankful that there’s no scene in the film that shows either of them rescuing a busload of orphans during a mudslide.
At least these two have allowed the film to be about Biggie (Jamal Woolard) and his meteoric rise to fame before his untimely death at the age of 24. When we meet young Christopher (played by the rapper’s son, Christopher Jordan Wallace), he’s a pudgy mama’s boy reading about hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow in Right On! magazine. One day he decides to leave his mother’s stoop behind and start exploring the street life in Brooklyn, where he becomes a rich teenage drug dealer.
After serving a stint in prison, where he begins writing down his rhymes in notebook, Christopher returns to Brooklyn and gains status as a street-battling rapper. When one of his demos lands in Combs’ hands, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in his life. (The screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker asks us to believe that a friend of Chris’ will take the rap for him on a gun possession charge so that Chris will remain free to start his hip-hop career, which is one thing, but it also wants us to believe that the friend would actually say, “When a m-----f----- like you makes it, we all make it.”)
“Notorious” whizzes through Biggie’s romances with Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), his feud with west coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and the usual “more-money-more-problems” issues that come up in this kind of “Behind the Music” movie.
What’s most annoying about “Notorious” is that whatever bad thing that Biggie ever does gets paved over by the end of the film. Christopher emotionally distances himself when his mother gets diagnosed with breast cancer? He calls her at the end of his life to congratulate her on winning the battle.
Biggie neglects his women and children? He calls them all just before the shooting and vows to spend more time with them. A desperate Christopher sells crack to a pregnant woman (Aunjanue Ellis, wasted in a cameo)? He later sees her clean and sober, laughing and playing with her healthy child.
First-timer Woolard gives a charismatic performance — the way he plays B.I.G., you can understand why women fell in love with him and why fans adored him. Mackie interestingly balances Tupac’s poet-warrior and street thug personae, even if the movie smooths over some of the uglier facets of the east coast-west coast feud that eventually cost both Tupac and Biggie their lives.
Bassett, on the other hand, could play this kind of role in her sleep, and at times you suspect that’s just what she’s doing — she gives native Jamaican Voletta an accent every now and then, but more often forgets to do so.
Director George Tillman, Jr. (“Men of Honor”) keeps things moving briskly, and the performance sequences are electrifying as they should be in a movie about such a natural performer. “Notorious” occasionally contains the kind of gratuitous nudity that makes you feel bad for the top-popping day players, but the film does show compassion for Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans as strong women making it in the very sexist world of hip-hop.
Lil’ Kim has already come out against “Notorious,” and there will no doubt be others who feel the story hasn’t been told in the right way. And given the film’s built-in biases, they probably have a point. “Notorious” is an entertaining look at an influential artist, and many of Biggie’s fans will probably enjoy it; just keep in mind that, looking at who produced it, this movie is more infomercial than documentary.