Sometimes it takes a certain type of viewer to appreciate a certain type of film. We all have our own personal tastes and biases which color the way we perceive things and movies are no exception. Having said that, I enjoyed Notorious more than I thought I would, but that’s probably because I’ve been listening to hip hop since I was in the first grade and the Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls aka Frank White was my favorite rapper.
The movie opens with young Christopher Wallace reciting some lyrics with a buddy in the schoolyard. The late rapper’s real life son plays him in the movie, and does a wonderful job capturing his father’s burgeoning love for hip hop. Angela Bassett (Meet the Browns) portrays his mother, Voletta Wallace. She and Christopher have a loving relationship, and share a tender moment when she consoles him about his father’s apathetic approach to parenthood. As Big enters adolescence he yearns for the nicer things in life, and earns a reputation as a fearsome neighborhood emcee. Intelligent but bored with school, he starts hustling. When his mother discovers his illegal activity she gives him the heave ho. Rhyming on the corner one day, he encounters one Kim Jones, who would go on to become the infamous Lil’ Kim. I’ve heard that she was none too pleased with her depiction in the film, and I can’t blame her. She comes across horribly – like a clingy, desperate, and raunchy woman. Her lone redeeming quality (aside from being a gifted lyricist) was her undying loyalty to Big. Unfortunately that loyalty also made her a little pathetic. Faith, in sharp contrast, was depicted as more of the type of woman you wouldn’t mind taking home to meet your mother.
This is a movie for hip hop fans. If you can’t remember rocking to “Juicy” back in the day, or “One More Chance,” you might not appreciate the movie as much as I did. The movie was a revelation in that it showed a side of Christopher Wallace heretofore hidden. I had no idea he was such a caring individual. In his own words he was “black and ugly as ever,” but he never lacked female companionship. The movie illustrated how it was possible for women to fall in love with him, something I never quite understood before. He was funny and charming, both with Kim and Faith. Another aspect of the movie I appreciated was its chronological depiction of his musical career, including the inspiration for his music. I loved one particular scene showing his initial reaction to Puffy’s suggestion that he sample the 1980’s classic “Juicyfruit.” Puff had to convince him to use the beat, and the song went on to become a classic. Little tidbits like that are insightful, and only a hip hop fan can appreciate a detail like that, in my opinion. It also captured Big’s frustration and disappointment with his deteriorating friendship with Tupac, which led to both of their untimely demise.
Notorious is a must-see for all the hip hop heads out there. You can add it to the catalogue along with Belly, Krush Groove, etc. The casting was fantastic, especially when you consider that Jamal Woolard (Big) had no formal acting lessons before this movie. Derek Luke (Catch a Fire) effectively captured Puffy’s hunger and ambition, though his dancing was comical at times. Come to think of it, Puffy’s dancing is comical too, so that actually works. My only criticism of the movie was that some of the dialogue was too expository, and thus a bit contrived. Other than that, there wasn’t much room for improvement. The movie goes a long way in cementing the incredible legacy of one of the best to ever hold a microphone.
This review first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2009/01/notorious/ and was reprinted with permission.