Latest Music Biopic Notorious For All the Wrong Reasons
Towards the end of Notorious (2008), the latest in a torrential slew of Hollywood biopics, Sean Combs a.k.a. Puff Daddy turns to Christopher Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. and says, “We gonna change the world, Biggie Smalls.” Biggie retorts, “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” This is the dramatic beat in the film, the moment before the climax, but one cannot help but wonder: “what does that even mean?” And therein lies the problem. It doesn’t mean anything.
In fact, the intro tracks to Biggie’s two studio albums, Ready to Die and Life After Death do a better job at summarizing his life than Notorious. On Ready to Die, the listener hears Biggie’s birth as Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” plays. “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang plays next, as Biggie’s mother and (presumably) father argue about their son. Their argument transitions into “Top Billin’” by Audio Two. As “Top Billin’” plays, Biggie and a friend rob a subway train. Finally, “Tha Shiznit” by Snoop Dogg is sampled while Biggie is being released from prison. His last lines are, “I got big plans nigga… big plans.” The intro to Life After Death (which was released sixteen days after Biggie’s murder in Los Angeles) is less interesting, but serves as a nice bookend to his life.
Notorious follows the format of these two tracks almost exactly. A series of vignettes shows us Biggie grow up, sell crack on the streets of Brooklyn, go to prison, and then begin recording music. The rest of the film is devoted to Biggie’s meteoric rise to fame, his relationship with Tupac Shakur that (as we all know) turns sour, and ends, inexorably, with his death. What Notorious does in 123 minutes, Ready to Die and Life After Death do in a little over five.
To understand the problems with Notorious, it is important to recognize the film in a larger context – to understand its existence within the larger world of hip-hop cinema, musician biographies, and biopics in general. Although the “biographical film” has existed since the birth of cinema – Cyrano de Bergerac (1900) being possibly the very first – the biopic as a genre is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even more recent is the glut of music biopics, spurned on by the success of Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). The hip-hop biopic, though, has been relatively neglected. The only other film that comes to mind when thinking of hip-hop biographies is 8 Mile (2002). And 8 Mile isn’t truly a biopic, it’s a fictional story based on Martial Mathers a.k.a. Eminem’s early life. “Aha!” you may say, “but what about Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2005), the 50 Cent biopic for which Terrence Howard received an Oscar nod?” Well, yes. Technically I suppose Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a biopic. It’s even directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot – 1989). However, Get Rich is so utterly modeled after 8 Mile and so entirely forgettable that it hardly deserves mention.
Notorious is, then, a foundational film in many ways. So, what should be learned from this endeavor? Unfortunately, not much. And although Notorious is the “first” hip-hop biopic, it certainly does nothing new in the way of filmmaking choices. The real progenitors here are the filmmakers of Ray and Walk the Line, who perfected making the formulaic “hardships in early life lead to a spectacular rise to fame which leads to drug addiction and relationship crises which eventually leads to redemption” story palatable to awards-season audiences. Structurally, Notorious is no different than these films. And all of them, sadly, disappoint.
The problem with these types of films is that they do little more than “report” the life and times of their subjects. Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious are like the biographies of John Glenn and Winston Churchill that we read in elementary and middle school. They show us what happened, but offer no analysis on why. There’s a lazy filmmaker at work here; rather than make narrative choices and attempt to glean insight into the minds of their subjects, the writers and directors prefer to create facile and methodic stories that fit into their formulas of what makes appealing cinema.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of these films is that they present their stories as fact. Notorious (which was executively produced by Sean Combs) paints a fairly saintly portrait of its subject. Biggie goes to prison, but he’s a victim of the system. He doesn’t have anything to do with Tupac’s robbery and shooting in Manhattan. He had already recorded the b-side “Who Shot Ya” (which provoked the East Coast-West Coast rivalry to new heights) before Tupac’s attempted murder. It was mainly Tupac’s fault that their beef was not resolved. Puffy and Biggie had nothing to do with Tupac’s murder in Las Vegas. And, of course, Biggie had patched things up with all the women in his life (his mother, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, etc) before he died. While some of these things are most certainly true, some of them aren’t, and several of them are still shrouded in mystery. There’s nothing wrong with fictionalizing aspects of a biopic; in fact, it’s nearly always essential to the narrative flow of the film. But Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious never decide what these fictionalizations mean. Facts are changed, but the story continues along as if they hadn’t been.
When filmmakers decide to take a perspective about their subject and follow those ideas to a conclusion, their films are almost always more interesting to watch. Furthermore, films that do not attempt to tell an entire “life story” are more successful. Just as a biography of Winston Churchill that focuses on and analyzes specificities of his life is more interesting than the simplistic biographies of our youth, films like I’m Not There (2007) are also far more compelling. Though certainly not without flaws, I’m Not There is willing to do more than routinely describe. It takes Bob Dylan’s life and creates new characters and narratives from his actual experiences. Rather than pretending to be a total portrait of who Bob Dylan is, I’m Not There attempts to understand his various iterations and personalities through distinct characters, actors, and stories. There are plenty of films that are arguably even better at this (re)interpretation: in the music genre, Amadeus, and more generally, W., Che, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Notorious, like many biopics, gets a good performance out of its lead Jamal Woolard. In many ways his performance is very similar to Sean Penn’s in Milk. They both essentially impersonate other people, and they both do it well. Jamal Woolard looks eerily like Biggie, and he perfected Biggie’s slow, syncopated drawl. In fact, the most indelible scenes in Notorious are when Woolard is rapping Biggie’s words. Each time this happens, though, George Tillman, Jr (the director, whose presence is barely felt) chooses to cut the scene before the song is over. We only see Woolard rap part of “Juicy.” We only see part of his performance of “Who Shot Ya” to a hostile crowd in California. Making a film about a musician and choosing to avoid a lot of time devoted to seeing his performance in favor of focusing on the musician’s personality can work (see I’m Not There). In the case of Notorious, though, the rest of the film is bland and uninspired. There was nothing insightful in the scenes where Biggie was not rapping.
Hopefully, as movie studios gear up many more hip-hop biopics in light of the success of Notorious, they will choose filmmakers who are willing to make films that realize the unique opportunities that are present when operating within the cinematic medium. Ideally, these films will model themselves after Amadeus and I’m Not There, not Ray and Walk the Line. I don’t think this is very likely, though. Audiences have shown what they want, and that’s inoffensive and predictable films that have good performances, but do not challenge the viewer in any way. As I left the theatre after the credits for Notorious had rolled, I thought about what, if anything, I was taking away from the film. I could only think of this: “We gonna change the world, Biggie Smalls.” “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” In the greater context of Notorious, that exchange doesn’t mean a thing. But in retrospect, maybe it can be applied to what I’ve been discussing. If we, as audiences, demand better biographical films – films that challenge us – we can change the world of the biopic. We can change the world. But first, we have to change ourselves.