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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Film | [ssba]


The music video, at least within the hip hop community, has always been a venue for autobiographical fiction. Everything is exaggerated and enhanced to surreal degrees of decadence or poverty, but always based on some fundamental truths about the lives of the people involved. Notorious, a biopic about Biggie Smalls of “The Notorious B.I.G.” fame, signifies the move of this aesthetic and tone to the feature length form. It becomes swiftly apparent that this move was not for the best. All the tropes that inform the formerly three-minute genre, when stretched to 120 minutes fall apart. The fast cutting becomes sloppy. The heavy use of filters hurts the eyes. The exaggerated truth becomes egregious lies.

While ostensibly an attempt at some reflection of the truth of Biggie’s life, it is obvious from the first flash cut frame that this is not about the man but his myth. Biggie Smalls—martyr to rap. Among the lengthy executive producers list for Notorious sit the names of his mother Voletta Wallace, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, and two former managers. Their level of involvement becomes hilariously transparent as we get to see the story of troubled genius Biggie weather the hate of everyone in the world barring his four near-godlike supporters—Puffy, his mother and managers, who are practically saints. With such bias being so evident, one is forced to question everything retold in the film, which becomes quite trying.

Another issue with Notorious is the level of knowledge that it assumes of the audience. To get anything close to a full understanding of the film, one needs an encyclopaedic knowledge of the work, life and times of Biggie. It assumes the audience is well aware of and in full awe of Biggie’s genius—how else did it plan to get away with extended sequences of him listening to his own music yelling about how much of a genius he is?

Also, its attempted moralising is constantly fogged by its typical glamorisation of gangster life. At one point, having yelled “Fuck you, bitch!” at Lil Kim on the phone, he tells his daughter the most important advice he could ever give her. “Never let a man call you a bitch.” Which is just… WTF?

There is already one film about Biggie Smalls, Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac, and while far from perfect, it is much more worthy of your time than this ridiculous fantasy.

Directed by George Tilman, Jr
Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker
With Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke and Angela Bassett


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kim Wheatley says:

    As a bit of a hip-hop fan I was vaguely hopes that this would film would give a decent portrayal of the genre. Of course, with the overbearing influence of Puffy and Big’s family it was always going to be a total letdown. I do think that Jamaal Woolard and Big’s son both did a pretty decent job at portraying the old/young Biggie though.

    I would have liked to have seen this film put together using a much dirtier, ‘street,’ approach, without the horrible MTV music video sheen that you so rightly drew attention to Uther. In the streets of Brooklyn, the lines of good/evil were about as blurred as they could be, and Big was well aware of this. It’s a shame that the makers of this film didn’t get it. The introduction of ‘Juicy’ always jumps to mind, where Big dedicates the track to “all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustling from that called the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter.”

    Also, for all his rogueish charm, Big could be a total misogynist, and I think the film’s efforts to try and excuse or defend some of his actions were downright embarrassing. Ian Curtis got none of this special protection in Control, which is why that film remains the gold standard for straightforward artist biopics.

    The other thing that confused me was that it made Big’s decision to go back to California seem utterly retarded. It was so obvious that he was going to get shot there. I don’t know enough about the history of this decision, but if it was really made in the way shown in the film then Big was either a total moron or he somehow accepted that his own death was necessary if the east/west feud was ever going to end (which is something I don’t really buy).

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