Notorious, The: George Tillman’s Biopic of Showbiz Christopher, the Notorious B.I. G.

As far as showbiz biopics go, The Notorious, a chronicle of the rise and demise of Christopher–The Notorious B.I.G. Wallace—is mediocre and too simple, a film strong on music (like greatest hit parade), but weak on real insights into the psychology and artistry of the man.


As is known, in just a few years, Christopher shot from the tough streets of Brooklyn to hip-hop legend.  Director George Tillman’s honorable aim is to dig into and deconstruct the mythic image of the pop artists 11 years after his tragic death.  For a while, the narrative avoids clichés that are familiar from this genre before succumbing to them.


The saga’s first chapters are quite interesting, as they detail the tumultuous, brief journey of a talented and fiercely ambitious youth whose rap stories of inner city street life, with their raw quality, brutal reality, and vivid rhymes, became emblematic of a whole generation, which dreams of escaping from their social conditions and achieving something bigger that would make them proud.


Two actors portray the man: Young Biggie is played by Wallace’s real-life son Christopher Jordan Wallace, and Brooklyn’s estimable rapper Jamal Woolard plays him as an adult.   The tale, based on a serviceable (but no more) scenario by Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker, begins with the youngster as a Catholic school honor student whose proud mother (Angela Bassett) tries to keep him off the streets, and then follows to his years as a tough teenage drug dealer.


Turning point, and rather life-changing move, occurs when he becomes a father, when his girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell) gives birth to his daughter.  Never underestimate the power of strong women: It’s Jan who motivates him to go on a mission to provide for his family while using any means, legit or illegit. 


Things change dramatically, when a freestyle rap tape that Biggie created for fun ends up with B.I.G. Daddy Kane’s DJ Mister Cee (Edwin Freeman), and then in the hands of ambitious rap impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), whose marketing savvy and production genius transform Biggie into a cultural sensation.


With his career taking off into celeb-superstar, Biggie faces the usual problems that go with this status is subjected to all kinds of pressures.  His managers, Wayne Barrow (C. Malik Whitfield) and Mark Pitts (Kevin Phillip), attempt to keep him focused on his work, as he juggles the demands of recording, fatherhood and fellow Bad Boy artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), not to mention his complicated friendship with fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Kimberly “Lil Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton) and the rivalry with West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).


Tragedy strikes when Biggie is slain in 1997, just as he becomes more self-conscious  and responsible about the meaning of fatherhood, manhood, and artistic genius as the creator of one of hip-hop’s greatest bodies of work.


Tillman previously directed another true story, “Men of Honor” (2000), which also suffered from similar narrative problems. To his credits, he doesn’t dwell on or sensationalize the details of the killing.  And Admittedly, it’s tougher to make a bitter success story than a happy success story, because there’s always a let-down factor.  But “Notorious” is too simple, or not complex enough, in capturing the artist and his work (the masterful and magical storytelling), his family and peers, his industry, and his socio-political milieu.  There’s something restrictive and reductive in the format of biopics that impairs and damages truly interesting life stories, such as Biggie’s.


Even so, most of the acting is good, particularly Jamal Woolard, who capturs the uniquely raspy baritone of the iconic rapper, Derek Luke who has the good sense not to impersonate Sean Combs (who’s credited as the film’s executive producer), and Angela Bassett as the forceful Voletta Wallace.


Voletta Wallace – Angela Bassett
Sean Combs – Derek Luke
Christopher “Biggie” Wallace – Jamal Woolard
Tupac ShakurAnthony Mackie
Faith EvansAntonique Smith
Lil’ Kim – Naturi Naughton
Mark – Kevin Phillips
Damion – Dennis L.A. White
Cease – Marc John Jefferies
Jan – Julia Pace Mitchell
Sandy – Aunjanue Ellis
Det. Farelli – John Ventimiglia
Wayne – C. Malik Whitfield
Biggie (age 8-13) – Christopher Jordan Wallace



A Fox Searchlight release and presentation of a Voletta Wallace Films/By Storm Films/State Street Pictures/Bad Boy Films production.

Produced by Wallace, Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, Robert Teitel, Trish Hofmann.

Executive producer, Sean Combs.

Co-producer, George Paaswell.

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

Screenplay: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker.
Camera (Deluxe color),
Michael Grady.

Editors, Dirk Westervelt, Steven Rosenblum.

Music, Danny Elfman; music supervisors, Francesca Spero, Barry Cole.

Production designer, Jane Musky; art director, Laura Ballinger-Gardner; set decorator, Alex Mazur.

Costume designer, Paul A. Simmons.

Supervising sound editor, Lewis Goldstein; re-recording mixers, Goldstein, Robert Fernandez.

Visual effects, Glenn Allen, Eric J. Robertson; special effects coordinator, Conrad Brink Sr.; stunt coordinators, Ray Siegle, Jeff Ward.

Choreographer: Tanisha Scott.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 121 Minutes