Twelve years after his death, the Notorious B.I.G. is still a favorite of both commercial radio and discerning hip-hop heads. His meteoric rise to fame, West Coast beef, and tragic death are a screenwriter's dream. Last night at the William Fox Theatre at the Fox Lot we were offered a first glimpse of Notorious, the new Biggie Smalls biopic directed by George Tillman, Jr., So how does the highly anticipated (at least among rap fans) Notorious handle the legend and his music?
The centerpiece of this made-for-TV drama masquerading as high cinema is, of course, the rapper-cum-actor Jamal Woolard's portrayal of Biggie. Physically, the resemblance is pretty close (the signature dark shades and Kangol he often wears make this easier). Woolard reportedly had to gain 45 pounds to match Biggie's girth, and it's unclear whether his Tony Soprano huffing and puffing throughout the film is an acting choice or involuntary.
Jamal Woolard, aka Gravy, freestyling
Musically, Notorious doesn't quite live up to the standards set by A Coalminer's Daughter, Ray, or even Walk the Line. When speaking, Woolard's sluggish, slurred drawl is reminiscent of Biggie. When he raps, though, he has B.I.G.'s early-'90s rhythm and unique cadence down — but his vocal tone doesn't really match. Astute fans will notice. The film's Tupac and Puffy portrayals stretch believability, though the actresses playing Lil' Kim and Faith Evans do a better job. And there's a quick shot of someone playing Craig Mack who looks an awful lot like the real thing.
Despite its failings, Notorious has its moments: Biggie balking at Puffy's sample suggestion for “Juicy,” winning over a hostile California crowd by performing “Who Shot Ya,” and hearing him tell Lil' Kim, “I love it when you call me Big Poppa.” Criticism of the film's authenticity seems like nitpicking. Woolard is a novice actor playing an iconic rapper, and acting chops aside, he does a decent job. Ultimately, Biggie Smalls' persisting, revered status in hip-hop is what will probably ensure the film's success. (Jonah Flicker)