Rap earns its first top-drawer bio film with Notorious, a revealing, moving and entertaining peek at the 24 years that Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G., spent on this earth. George Tillman Jr.'s film might follow the well-worn path of many a musical biography, but spot-on casting, a light touch around the edges and affection for its subject makes this warts-and-all look at the big man with the big hits a winner.
We meet Christopher Wallace when he's a grade-school nerd, wearing a uniform, getting the good grades that his mom (Angela Bassett, regal as always) demands. But a smart kid with a passion for cash and the new hip-hop of the streets figures out pretty quickly that good grades won't get him where he wants to go. The fact that Biggie's real son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays the boy Christopher lends extra poignancy to these scenes.
The kid grows into a teen dope dealer, an amoral greedy creep (Jamal Woolard) who will sell crack to pregnant women, lie to his mom and his pregnant girlfriend, and risk prison time, anything for “the cash.” He can rhyme, sure. But his life doesn't change until he meets the charismatic, inspiring Sean “Puffy” Combs.
“Don't chase the money. Chase the dream,” preaches Combs, played by Derek Luke with a charge of energy and a splash of stardust.
And so “Biggie” is born. Tillman, who directed the fine Men of Honor, trips through the benchmarks of Biggie's rise — concerts, studio sessions — and his women. Naturi Naughton gives a star-making performance as Lil Kim, a Biggie discovery who rocked his bedroom (fun, graphic sex scenes) and then became a star in her own right, her sexy stage image molded by her rapper-lover. Antonique Smith is terrific as Faith Evans, Biggie's wife.
Notorious is framed within a flashback that takes place on the night in 1997 when Biggie was killed. Tillman deftly takes us through the friendship with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, dazzling) that degenerated into a paranoid feud that police have never been able to pinpoint as the cause for the slayings of both stars.
The script by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker captures more of Biggie's personality than any of the many fine documentaries about Biggie, Tupac and the rap of that era. This Biggie is funny, brash, confident, a little less the mama's boy-poseur he appeared to be in Rhyme and Reason and Biggie and Tupac.
Credit for that has to go to Woolard, a novice who just nails the man's swagger, his tone and his style. The resemblance, physically and vocally, is uncanny.
The film's rare missteps have more to do with sins of omission — details left out, a little image-burnishing for Biggie and Puffy (who produced the film). But Tillman has crafted a film biography that will stand as definitive, with all the passion, ambition and violence that this man and his era in rap came to represent.