Mo Biggie

Pub date January 14, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER Wait for it, wait for it: the moment when Jamal Woolard as Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Big Poppa, utters, with admirable understatement, "Mo money, mo problems." The woman he married three days after he met her, vocalist Faith Evans (a sad-eyed Antonique Smith), is pregnant but estranged; his spunky protégé Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) is hopping mad that her lover-protector-mentor has dropped her and is instead bossing her in the studio; his original baby mama is miffed that his daughter gets zero Big Poppa time, and his ex-BFF Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) thinks Biggie is out to get him, and the East Coast vs. West Coast beef is now fully fired up. ‘Nuff said.

"Mo Money Mo Problems" is the obvious alternate title for Notorious, which has the ring of a men’s cologne by Sean "I Am King" Combs, aka Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy, aka Diddy, the film’s executive producer. It’s certainly more glammy — and feeds into the mythmaking that Combs has been so adept at when it comes to his Bad Boy artists — than Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G. (Three Rivers, 2004), the title of the book by Cheo Hodari Coker that this biopic is based on.

The drive-by shooters who killed the legendary rapper, born Christopher Wallace, at the far-too-young age of 24, remain cloaked in mystery, despite the attention given the MC’s murder in Randall Sullivan’s 2002 book, LAbyrinth (Grove/Atlantic) and Nick Broomfield’s ’02 doc Biggie and Tupac, and his death is still embroiled in knotty intrigue, having triggered multiple wrongful-death claims against the Los Angeles Police Department. But of course, history is written by the winners — and those happen to be Combs and Notorious‘ producers, Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace and Biggie managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts — and in the end, they prefer to skip the speculation and allegations of conspiracy surrounding the rapper’s unsolved murder and focus on the love.

So much like recent musicmaker biopics à la 2007’s Control, which privileged the perspective of Joy Division frontperson Ian Curtis’ wife over his bandmates’, there’s an element of noticeably selective memory-picking to Notorious — even as it tries to play fair with those outside the equation, such as Shakur and Lil’ Kim. The latter has slammed the movie, according to MTV: she believes it hews to the version of history as written by Biggie’s mother and wife and portrays her inaccurately.

Still, director George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor, Barbershop) seems to have thrived on the tension between a mother who adored Biggie but disapproved of his criminal activities, and label heads and managers aware that the dope-dealing, dues-paying gangsta grind girding Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics must be shown to authenticate the first-person experiential honesty the rapper was known for. Thus we get a multidimensional Biggie — the big-kid vulnerability he showed to his moms and his "Faith-Faith," as well as the tough, rock-slinging-to-pregnant-crackheads, money-making front. Plenty of respect is also given to the MC’s art, which this rags-to-riches/gats-to-bitches tale (with much due given to a kind of golden-age of hip-hop label patronage in the form of Puffy [Derek Luke] and Biggie’s friendship) reverently visualizes on the street, in the basement, in the studio, and on the arena stage.

Putting his interest in street-level soul, characters less than well-represented in mainstream Hollywood, and his touch with rappers to work, Tillman subtly injects more cinematic interest into his already-dramatic material than it might have had on the page. Biggie’s childhood is washed with glowy, golden hues, while his time dealing on the street is leached of hues and clad in corroded grays, blacks, whites, and browns, until the MC battles another rapper on the sidewalk and color begins to enter the picture.

And unlike 2008’s Cadillac Records, which bought into the overt displays of bling that talent can bring, Tillman and company give adequate shrift to the musicmaking that built Biggie’s renown: the mic is shot as if it’s a grail, swathed in a silvery aura. The symbols of power — such as the Big Daddy Kane–like throne Biggie mounts — speak louder than his kicks, cribs, or cars. And the scenes in which Woolard actually raps — particularly in a basement scene after he emerges from prison and a bout of lyric writing and soul searching — are believable and compelling: flecks of his spit shimmer in the harsh light. Woolard, who grew up blocks from Biggie’s original hood and had a promising career until a shooting in front of NYC’s Hot 97, is the perfect choice to portray the man.

Notorious‘ melodramatic, overly amped conclusion may ring a bit artificial with its drawn-out return to the opening scenes: as "Hypnotize"’s "Rise" sample ripples through the dancers, Notorious B.I.G. says, in flashback, that he’s finally found peace, he’s become a man, and, well, he’s Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994), to crib the title of his classic debut. But I dare anyone to not get choked up by Notorious‘ coda, as Voletta Wallace, portrayed with grand-dame grit by Angela Bassett, looks out on the crowd surrounding her son’s NYC funeral procession, playing his music and flinging their arms, and realizes that, though she never quite trusted the easy money and fast friends surrounding her son, Biggie will always be remembered for his way with words.

NOTORIOUS opens Fri/16 in the Bay Area




It’s not a hologram: the roving musicmakers return to the region they once called home. Wed/14, 8 p.m., $15. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF.


They’re dark-eyed and infatuated with gypsy, Yiddish, and Manouche jazz. Wed/14, 8 and 10 p.m., $20–<\d>$25. Yoshi’s SF, 1330 Fillmore, SF.


Cutie-pie pop oozes from the Aussie charmer who once studied acting with Cate Blanchett. Thurs/15, 8 p.m., $13–<\d>$15. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF.


We’re lost in an all-girl punk rock wilderness. Sat/17, 9:30 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.


The popsters go acoustic with tunes from an album-in-progress. Sun/18–Mon/19, 8 p.m., $25. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF.


The acclaimed live performer taps Obama samples for his new single, "No War." Tues/20, 9 p.m., $28. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF.