VIDEO: Chris Faraone interview Jamal "Gravy" Woolson
To its fault and its credit, George Tillman Jr.'s bio-pic offers a life story that fans of late MC extraordinaire Chris Wallace, a/k/a Biggie Smalls, a/k/a the Notorious B.I.G., have known for years — from his representing Bedford Stuyvesant in a "red and black lumberjack with the hat to match" to his "Mo Money Mo Problems" days of sipping champagne to quench his thirst. There are few surprises here; instead we get the same exploits — between B.I.G. and his women, and B.I.G. and his adversaries — that played out in the mid to late '90s in his music and the media.
But though the film is a smidgen romanticized — particularly in the way B.I.G. finds peace with his friends, himself, his music, his kids, and his baby mamas in the final days before his tragic 1997 murder — it is remarkably well executed. This is a surprise, as many expected Biggie's career handler, Sean Combs, who does the executive-producer honors, to underplay the shallow, dangerous, materialistic path down which he led the "greatest rapper alive." (Fortunately, Combs thinks his shallow one-liner philosophies are commendable, so it's all in there.)
Props to B.I.G.'s mom, Voletta Wallace, the casting team, and Tillman for going beyond the excellent choice of first-time actor and Brooklyn native Jamal Woolard (a/k/a Gravy) to portray the protagonist. Other than Anthony Mackie, who plays an ineffective parody of Tupac Shakur, picks like Dennis L.A. White as D-Roc are charismatic; that's particularly true of Naturi Naughton as Lil' Kim.
Overall — for hip-hop's first bio-pic in which the lead character isn't playing himself — Notorious is stellar. For those who already knew the background, it might have seemed abridged, but the job was hardly rushed. Some might argue that it hasn't been long enough since B.I.G. passed for such a tribute, but hip-hop heads will likely agree that it was farther back than yesterday when hip-hop artists like Chris Wallace graduated from the corner to the penthouse on the laurels of their lyrics and little else.