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Movie review
3 stars (out of 5 stars)
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke,
Anthony Mackie, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith
Directed by: George Tillman, Jr.
Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker
Rated R (for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including
dialogue, nudity, and for drug content)
120 Minutes

Reviewed: January 14, 2009

Movie review by David Malsch

"Notorious" is the rags-to-riches story of Christopher Wallace--aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls--one of the great all-time rappers in hip-hop history, killed in 1997 on the streets of Los Angeles. NotoriousBiggie was bigger than life, both figuratively and literally, and was the king of the East Coast hip-hop scene with its Bad Boy Records and co-star Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy. On the other side of the country was the West Coast scene where Tupac Shakur and Death Row Records ruled the scene. Together, these two giants defined hip-hop music in the 90's when the genre ruled the pop culture music scene.

The story begins in Brooklyn during the 80's when a fat, little kid named Christopher Wallace was just a mama's boy, going to school and listening to Kurtis Blow rhymes. His mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett), kept a sharp eye on her only son and made sure school was a priority for young Christopher. But by the time Christopher (Jamal Woolard) was 17 he was a very big boy and was starting to detach from his mother's firm grip. One way he did this was by selling crack on the streets to earn his money. Eventually, he made it from dealer to kingpin until he got busted and thrown into prison, which permanently separated him from his distraught mother. Upon his release from prison, Christopher decides to fly straight. He pursues the other thing he was really good at besides making money and that was making music.

He was a natural rapper. The music came easy for Wallace who morphed into his alter ego, Biggie Smalls. From there, he met a struggling manager named Sean Combs (Derek Luke) who agreed to take him on and together they reinvented Wallace into The Notorious B.I.G. and along with it created a star for the fledgling East Coast hip-hop scene. Biggie quickly became king of the local scene and one of the biggest names in rap music. Together, with the West Coast scene and Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), hip-hop became a phenomenon and a cash cow for everyone involved.

"Notorious" introduces us to a large cast of supporting players from Biggie's on-again/off-again romance with Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) whom he made a star, and his eventual marriage to R&B singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Everything is bling-bling and Cristal until Tupac is shot in New York. He survives and accuses Biggie of trying to kill him even though the allegations are completely false. Thus begins the infamous war between the coasts, turning artistic friends into bitter enemies. Later, Tupac is shot again, this time in Las Vegas. He doesn't survive this shooting, which makes things go from bad to worse. Six months later, Biggie is killed and the two biggest stars of the genre are gone. Both murders are still unsolved to this day but the East Coast/West Coast feud still lives on.

"Notorious" is a well-made film despite being a very formulaic picture, feeling more like one of the narratives done on VH1's Behind the Music. "Notorious" is a gripping story of sex, drugs, and hip-hop but keeps itself very neutral and safe in its storytelling, showcasing Biggie as the hero. For anyone interested at an in-depth look into the infamous feud between NotoriousBiggie and Tupac you best look somewhere else. But if you are interested, I suggest two documentaries, "Biggie & Tupac" (2002), or "Tupac: Resurrection" (2003). These films are more objective in recounting the true story than Director George Tilman's film here is. And I can only imagine that objectivity was certainly difficult when making this movie since Notorious was produced by Sean Combs himself and Biggie's mom, Voletta. So, the film pretty much comes off as more of a love letter to Biggie and his fans than anything else.

There is a bright spot, however. Jamal Wollard shines, taking on the gargantuan role of The Notorious B.I.G. Woolard won the role through an open casting and makes his film debut. He is nothing short of terrific. He looks legit and portrays the two opposing sides of Biggie Smalls--the gangster rapper and the mama's boy--to a tee. Woolard, a rapper in real life, is best known on the scene as Gravy. He also grew up on the same streets of Brooklyn as Wallace did and, ironically, went from drug dealer to rapper as well. It really is the role of a lifetime for Jamal Woolard.

"Notorious" could very well revive the legend of B.I.G. and just might inspire a likewise feature film about the much more interesting and challenging character of Tupac Shakur. Both men were very real characters whose lives were sadly cut short at the top of their game, yet they continue to inspire and influence music to this day.

Watch the "Notorious" Trailer

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