Monday, February 2, 2009

Notorious movie review

Not to be confused with the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock directed movie of the same name starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, seriously I would love to know if anyone paid for this movie going, “wow, I can finally see Hitchcock’s Notorious on the big screen.” Anyway, this Notorious is the 2009 biopic about the life of hip-hop artist Christopher Wallace, or as he’s better known to the world, the Notorious B.I.G. Biggie Smalls. The film traces his rise in the NY streets as a hustler to his eventual reign as the East Coast king of hip hop, helping create Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy’s Records music label, and untimely murder at the hands of unknown assailants.

I have always loved biopics, and I have to admit, I was very interested in seeing this film, seeing NY back in the 90’s and hearing all the music I evidently missed out on while growing up. I have to say, damn is this not a good movie. Everything works, first time actor Jamal Woolard embodies Biggie so well, and while not as great as Langella in Frost/Nixon, he personifies his real life counterpart so well. The story is also nicely told. Biggies growth from tough drug hustler to rap icon is done really well, hitting all the important points while still remaining fresh, never overly glamorizing the character and still showing the bad choices he made during his life, his infidelity, his dead beat-dadness, his warts and flaws all. There is also a nice balance of music with the story, and best of all in the end, you feel the weight of this larger than life character and what his life has meant to the music world. What I liked so much about the film is that it was more interested on who he was rather than why he created the music he did. It tells its story without trying to answer some of its mysteries which many biopics fail to do. So yeah, surprisingly this movie is quite good, a biopic where you don’t need to be a fan of the icon in order to enjoy the message.

That’s not to say this film didn’t have its faults. The ending is to neatly tied up, and I’m not talking about his death but the events leading up to his death. This felt like a true abridged version of the facts, like these events played out over time, but the writers felt the need to shoe-horn everything into happening during one day. And the beyond the grave narration throughout the entire film sometimes felt odd and out of place. Also, while true to life, the cast was too large, with many characters coming and going with little reference or notice to who they were. And that lead to the major problem I had with this film. Not being a hip-hop fan of the 90’s, I’m not familiar with many of the events surrounding the rap scene during that time, and this movie takes for granted that the viewers will have some surface level knowledge of the music scene of that time. Now I know I’m not the target audience of this film. Obviously, the target audience is fans who love Biggie or knew Biggie and the whole music scene at that time, but that doesn’t give the movie the right, to take its viewers background knowledge for granted. A great movie would subtly hint and write those scenes in for viewers unfamiliar with the story. So, while I enjoyed the film, for a movie, it had some pretty shoddy moments and showed some true lazy screenwriting.

However, after saying all of that, it honestly doesn’t ruin the overall enjoyment of the film. Yeah sometimes you might feel lost, but the story keeps moving forward, carrying you forward, that you’ll eventually forget that you had questions and are enjoying the new plot developments. What I’ve always found is that a truly good music biopic makes you feel like you know the icon, makes you want to hear more of their music, and Notorious does all of that and more. It’s a movie about lasting legacies and how even a tremendous amount of talent can’t protect you from a world and culture of violence. How rap artists glamorize people’s perceptions of street life, hiding the filth and tragedy behind its glossy venire.

My favorite line in this movie is when Biggie is a little kid and a girl walks up to him and says, “you’re too fat, too black and too ugly”, and it’s that line that permeates the whole first half of the movie and it’s all the more rewarding to see him make it and grow into the Notorious B.I.G. I think this movie should be seen because after such a weak January of movies, Notorious is a welcome treat. It may feel cold and distant sometimes, but it’s still very entertaining. Anyway, so yeah, for the first time for a movie released this year, I give Notorious the “bring your lunch from home, because you do not want to miss this one.”

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