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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I can't honestly say that I was ever a fan of the Notorious B.I.G. My interest in rap music is somewhat limited, and when I do enjoy it, my taste tends to run counter to the so-called "gangsta" style. Nevertheless, it was with great anticipation that I went to see Notorious, the big screen biography of the late rapper. That whole mid-90's East Coast/West Coast feud lingers in my mind; it was shocking to me that people were getting murdered over music. To this day, I think the events of those times say something about our culture: aggression is not only marketable, it's also profitable. There's a whole subset of young people to whom the idea of a gangster lifestyle is desirable. When I was a teenager, the biggest musical controversy you could imagine was the androgynous look of Annie Lennox or Boy George.

Thankfully, Notorious strips away a lot of the societal context of the rap feud and puts the focus more on the personal. The main character of this film is not really the Notorious B.I.G. but Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard), the son of a Jamaican immigrant named Voletta (Angela Bassett) and an absentee father. Basically a decent kid, the teenaged Christopher decides that he doesn't see a lot of money-making opportunities for black folks in his Brooklyn neighborhood - a teacher telling him he'll never be more than a garbage man doesn't help - and so he begins hustling drugs. What he fails to initially realize is that he has a talent that could take him further than he could ever imagine: he could rap.

Christopher is introduced to a hungry young music producer named Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs (Derek Luke), who helps him put together a stage persona and a demo tape. The newly dubbed Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) soon becomes the top-selling artist on Bad Boy Records. He romances a young department store clerk named Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton) and helps launch her to rap stardom as Lil Kim by encouraging her to play up her sexuality. Later, Christopher falls for and marries another recording artist, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). There is a downside too. Biggie's stardom helps launch a whole thriving New York rap scene and, subsequently, a rivalry with West Coast rap star Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). That rivalry, of course, left both men dead.

I guess Notorious would have been interesting enough as a straightforward account of Christopher Wallace's brief life and tragic death. However, director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food) and screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood are interested in going a bit deeper. This is very much a character study in which a young man named Christopher uses his talent to tell the story of the streets. He finds wealth, fame, and groupies in the process; it's a story many people relate to. He also finds trouble: romantic trouble, business trouble, personal trouble. The movie suggests that, in spite of his stage persona, Christopher Wallace didn't always want to just be the badass that his image made him out to be. He ultimately decided that he wanted to be a better husband, a better father, a better businessman, and a better friend. While Notorious doesn't sanctify him (far from it, in fact), it does imply that his life fueled his material, rather than the other way around. Too many have written off the deaths of Biggie and Tupac with the whole "live by the sword, die by the sword" cliché when, in fact, these were two men who had more depth, sensitivity, and business savvy than they got credit for.

The reason why that's important is that rap music is really the only form of entertainment where you can go from the streets to the suites overnight. Not literally, of course, but close enough. Unlike many forms of show business, which are difficult to break into, the rap world is potentially accessible to anyone, no matter how humble or rough-hewn their beginnings. In fact, the tougher you've had it, the more "cred" you carry. The possibilities are intoxicating for any young dreamer with a rhyme and a desire to rise up in life. Notorious really conveys this idea, both in plot and in style. The story progresses quickly, conveying how quickly one can get swept up in the business once a foot is in the door, and the visuals are alternately glitzy and gritty, just like the rap game itself.

Jamal Woolard makes a sensational debut as Christopher Wallace. Aside from the strong resemblance, he also gives an accomplished performance, showing us all sides of the man he is playing. When Biggie is trying to do right, we believe his sincerity. When he's doing wrong, we understand that he has disappointment in himself. Naturi Naughton is also a virtual dead ringer as Lil Kim, especially in her musical numbers. Derek Luke and Anthony Mackie do not resemble Puffy and Tupac as closely, yet both actors accurately convey the distinct physicality of the men they are portraying. And, of course, Angela Bassett is terrific, as always. Despite top billing, her screen time is limited. Even so, she serves as the moral center of the film, as Voletta is the woman who gave Christopher his drive and ambition, as well as an underlying sense of morality that ultimately brings him full circle before his untimely end.

My one question about Notorious has to do with stuff that may have been left out. While all the ups and downs of Biggie's life are detailed, the film is somewhat hazy about the connection between his murder and Tupac's, never really exploring the East Coast/West Coast grudge with much specificity. If the movie is to be believed, Christopher Wallace was essentially an innocent in the feud - someone who tried to stop it but got caught up instead. While there is evidence that may be true, everything I've read/seen suggests it was more complicated than Notorious lets on. Check out Nick Broomfield's excellent documentary Biggie and Tupac, which posits that Biggie's slaying was a diversion to throw blame for Tupac's murder onto L.A. street gangs and off of West Coast impresario Marion "Suge" Knight. It's also interesting that Sean Combs, who serves as an Executive Producer on Notorious, comes off clean as a whistle. The movie's Puffy is something of a guardian angel to Christopher, constantly trying to guide him in the right direction. While Combs no doubt had his friend/business partner's best interests at heart, one can't help but wonder if he was always as noble as he's shown to be here.

Those thoughts didn't nag at me too much, though, because the film is not fundamentally about the murder, and it's certainly not about Puffy. It's about Christopher Wallace - the person behind the persona. Notorious is a well-made, compelling, and ultimately humane film, even if you don't like rap music. After I saw it, I went into our CD collection and pulled out my wife's Biggie Smalls CD to listen to, now armed with a newfound appreciation for the artist.

( 1/2 out of four)

Notorious is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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