[Screen It]


(2009) (Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke) (R)

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Drama: A young man rises from Brooklyn street drug dealer to increasingly famous rapper, but must contend with the various pitfalls that arise from that as well as his own behavior.
It's the 1990s and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls (JAMAL WOOLARD), deals dope on the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood despite his single mother, Voletta (ANGELA BASSETT), having done her best to bring him up the right way. Yet, his introduction to dealing by street dealer Damion "D-Roc" Butler (DANNIES L.A. WHITE) eventually results in him serving time in prison, meaning he misses the birth of his child with girlfriend Jan (JULIA PACE MITCHELL).

Behind bars, he hones his skills at writing rap songs, and when his time is up and he learns his stage name is already taken, he emerges as The Notorious B.I.G., impressing up and coming record producer Sean "Diddy" Combs (DEREK LUKE) to sign him to his record label. With the help of his friends/producers Mark Pitts (KEVIN PHILLIPS) and Wayne Barrow (CHARLES MALIK WHITFIELD), he hits the big time, thus drawing the interest first of budding rapper Lil Kim (NATURI NAUGHTON) and later, singer Faith Evans (ANTONIQUE SMITH) who he then marries.

He also meets and becomes friends with fellow rapper Tupac Shakur (ANTHONY MACKIE), but the progressively escalating East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud stirred up by the likes of record label mogul Suge Knight (SEAN RINGGOLD) eventually drives a wedge between them. From that point on, and as finds he's unable to be faithful to any of the women in his life, his growing success fuels both his notoriety and the tension with his rivals from the other coast.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
There's the old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name correctly. While there are obviously exceptions to that "rule," it's certainly a valid argument in terms of marketing oneself and/or a given product, as long as said behavior doesn't travel too far across some undetermined line of good and/or proper taste.

That's because consumers seem to love controversy, and thus so does the media, with both feeding on each other until things get blown out of proportion and the self and/or corporate marketers sit back and enjoy the fame, success and resultant positive cash flow.

Say what you will about the artistic abilities of those who create and distribute hip hop and particularly rap music, but they certainly understand that controversy results in media coverage that then equals increased record sales. And that was never truer than in the 1990s when the East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry sprung to life, starting with album and public "dissing" of those on the opposing American coast.

Such behavior continued to escalate for a few years until it finally came to a head with the shooting death of L.A. based Tupac Shakur in 1996 and the same fate for Brooklyn born Christopher Wallace the following year. If the latter's name doesn't ring a bell, the rapper also went by the monikers Biggie Smalls and most notably, The Notorious B.I.G.

His story -- including that of the publicity hungry feud that eventually got out of hand -- is told in "Notorious," yet another dramatic, spanning-the-years biopic about a troubled recording artist. While I knew of the rapper and the basic gist of the coastal rivalry, I couldn't name a song of his and didn't recognize any that played during the film's 100-some minute runtime.

Granted, I'm not anywhere in the demographic that would listen to his style of music, but the same holds true for a vast majority of moviegoers, notwithstanding those who purchased the million of units of his posthumously released album, "Life After Death," just the second of his short career.

Accordingly, the filmmakers -- director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker -- have their work cut out for them as compared, say, to those who made "Ray" and "Walk the Line." And that's not only due to so many more people being familiar with Ray Charles and Johnny Cash than Mr. Wallace, but also because the latter was anything but a sympathetic figure. By many accounts, he was a normal teen with a gift for rapping who was seduced from an otherwise good upbringing (albeit one without a father figure) into dealing drugs and thus jail time.

If handled correctly and with the right finesse, such a figure could be seen as a victim of his situation, but that never occurs in the film. Instead, he comes off as a common thug who only lives for the moment, not caring who he hurts along the way. While the cinema is littered with such figures, the performers who play them and/or those behind the camera usually manage to make them charismatic and/or captivating enough to overcome our distaste for their actions (think of Malcolm McDowell's character in "A Clockwork Orange" or Denzel Washington's in "American Gangster" for just a few of many such examples).

That simply doesn't occur here, and with just a cursory examination of the far more interesting and escalating hip hop feud, and a lack of good music (just my opinion) to otherwise buoy the viewing experience, the film never fully resonates. That is, except for fans of Biggie Smalls and/or rap and hip hop music -- everyone else will likely not care and thus give it a pass.

That said, newcomer Jamal Woolard is good as the unlikable protagonist, as is Angela Bassett as his single mom who must deal with her boy repeatedly disappointing her. The more difficult roles to pull off, however, involve that of Small's friend turned chief rival, Tupac Shakur (played by Anthony Mackie), and hip hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs (embodied by Derek Luke). On a general level, their performances are fine, but fans of either or both likely won't be terribly impressed in their efforts to capture those men's larger than life personalities.

Meanwhile, Naturi Naughton, Antonique Smith and Julia Pace Mitchell plays the various women in Small's personal life who -- like their counterparts in most recording artist biopics -- must contend with their lover's infidelity and attempts to charm his way back into their lives and beds.

As a whole, the film is okay, but there just isn't enough here -- be that in terms of an engaging even if unlikable protagonist or enjoyable music -- to entice, entertain and/or satisfy non-fans of the artist and/or the music genre in general. "Notorious" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 5, 2009 / Posted January 16, 2009

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