Choosing to embrace the icon rather than chase the mystery still surrounding it, director George Tillman, Jr attempts to shine a light on the shadow and legend of rapper Christopher Wallace aka "Biggie Smalls" in "Notorious."
With a glance and a gunshot, a Biggie voiceover brings us a young Christopher Wallace (played by Wallace's real-life son, Christopher Wallace, Jr), a bespectacled, overweight kid idolizing hip hop stars in a magazine.
More Smalls than Biggie, Christopher is kept on a short leash (or stoop) by his mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett).The seduction of creamy white sneakers, gold chains and easy money pulls Christopher into drugs and before long, he's thrown out by his mom and into the waiting arms of the law.
Prison offers him a bit of time to reflect and refine his rhyming skills. Upon his release, he dazzles his homies with his skills as well as an up and coming music impresario, Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke).
When hip-hop doesn't pay the bills, Biggie (newcomer Jamal Woolard) goes back to dealing crack and only a friend's sacrifice stops his legend from dying on the vine.
Reunited with Puffy, his career takes off, complete with all the trappings of fame. The free-flowing raps are matched only by the free flowing of weed, booze and women all come easy, but all have a price: the stunting of his maturity into manhood, evidenced by his relationships with women.
His high school sweetheart and mother of his first child, Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), becomes an afterthought when he meets his lover turned protégé Kimberly "Lil' Kim" Jones (Naturi Naughton) and finally his wife R&B songstress Faith Evans (magnificently played by Antonique Smith). Although all three have a place in his heart, none seem to be enough to satisfy his thirst to live life inside of the raw lyrics that he spits.
Lines between storytelling and documentary are clearly drawn in "Notorious." Tillman examines the genesis behind Smalls' turbulent relationship with rapper Tupac Shakur. Like any Shakespeare parable, Tupac's life and death will be forever intertwined with Smalls. In a brief, but brilliant performance, Tupac (Anthony Mackie) is seen as part visionary, part paranoid eccentric whose death played a direct or indirect role in Biggie's.
This East vs. West coast rap war is seen borne more from an overzealous media than actual fact. Also, the circumstances around his death featuring dirty cops, incompetent reporting and a possible conspiracy are virtually ignored in order to focus more on the man than the scandal.
Notorious stops short of glorifying the life of the man as well as the lifestyle and shows the dirt beneath the tailored suits and gold chains. From the way he treated his women to his crack dealing past, care was taken to show the warts of the rap icon. However, the movie was executively produced by Voletta Wallace, Combs and Biggie's managers so you walk away wondering what was left off the plate.
The cinematography is as captivating as the soundtrack is riveting. Although, the ending teases of the man that could've been, the performances are top notch enough to appreciate what was left behind.
Billy Tatum gives "Notorious" four (out of five) Scoops.