Monday, 27 April 2009

Review: Notorious

Year: 2009
Director: George Tillman Jr
Screenplay: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith, Derek Luke

Plot summary is here

Christopher Wallace (A.K.A The Notorious B.I.G, Biggie Smalls, Frank White etc) was my Kurt Cobain. I remember exactly where I was when he died. I used to walk with some friends to the bus stop to catch a coach to school. I had just made it around the girls house and the news ( Channel 4's Big Breakfast program) had come on announcing his death. The report then detailed how a truckload of rap artists had now brought bulletproof vehicles. Seriously, time fucking stopped.

I was 13 at the time and the news hit me for six. It was around that year I picked up Life after Death and got started to get into my hip hop. Bad Boy Record's helped shape one segment of my music listening tastes. Biggie and other are the reason I love East Coast Hip-hop over almost ANY other kind. So when I heard this movie was on it's way I had to watch it.

Now that I've shown you my bias...lets get on with the review. Notorious is SO cliched it's unbelievable. It's hard to watch a film like this after watching spoofs such as Walk Hard, because not only the latter film was so on point with it's piss takes, Notorious decides to almost follow them all. It's hard coming out of a movie like this when two of my favorite films of this year (The Dammed Utd and Frost/Nixon) have "biopics" in the loosest term of the word.

Wallace's life was a brief one it's still hard to place all the volatile elements of that life into two hours of film. Here the filmmaker try and do that, seemingly learning from T.V movies such as this*. One of the main differences between say Frost/Nixon and Notorious is quite simply focus. By concentrating on one moment in time Frost/Nixon provides an tense and dramatic film. Here we see Wallace struggle with jail, drug selling, infidelity, gang warfare you fucking name it. The film buckles under the strain with a script that glosses over insight to just a basic overview. Notorious' story works best when the focus remains on scenes of Biggie's relationship with one Tupac Shukar (One that has already been placed on film before). It's these moments are the most memorable due to Tupac's extreme personality which keeps his character from being a generic caricature.

However, lets not get things too twisted though as there's a lot of good here too. Despite the film's faults, The film helps by having Jamal Woolard in the lead role. After learning all of Biggie's raps and getting the vocal patten right, director George Tillman gets a solid performance out of the big man. Woolard not only looks the part but puts alot of effort into the role. If I want to nitpick about his turn...I'd say rap-wise it's easy to tell Jamal apart from The Notorious one simply because for a big guy Biggie pace and breath control was phenomenal. While Jamie Foxx has been impersonating Ray Charles on Kanye West songs, Woolard is at a tad slower than Wallace and it's probably to make sure he keeps the vocal sounding the same...which in all essence is fine.

Woolard carries the film by being likable to an audience that may still have no idea why they should give a damn. The most of the support give brave turns despite being mostly first timers or mostly unknowns. Naturi Naughton is feisty as Lil Kim while Antonique Smith is sweet as Faith Evans. Derek Luke gets Puff Daddys dancing down to a T while Marc John Jefferies makes the most out of a thankless Lil Cease role. Angela Bassett on the other hand is cruising on autopilot, you can almost see the producers shortlist for strong black mothers to have only her name on it.

Nototious is a typical rise and fall story that will probably only appeal to biggie fans which is a shame because the directors had a good chance to interest more people. Some sloppy storytelling stops the films from being as strong as it could be. 8 mile was a loose fictional account of aspects of Eminem's life but Curtis Hanson's economical direction shows how pull of a cliche movie with aplomb.

When Notorious gets it right however it's an entertaining movie. A lot of scenes carry good weight and I was never truly bored throughout the story despite knowing most of it. I love the music of course and despite the so much of the dialogue being crudely placed lines of biggies songs, it's not as cringe worthy as they could be. I've made this review a bit of a downer but please believe me when i say that I enjoyed the movie, just remember I'm a biggie fan.

It is unfortunate that the focus is as sloppy as it is. The scene's between Tupac and Biggie are short but more revealing than they seem to realise. If the filmmakers had worked more on that relationship and the bizarre and tragic circumstances I would have enjoyed the film even more.