Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Jan 20, 2009 3:31 pm 
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Bling-bliing to the grave

Christopher George Latore Wallace, born in 1972, grew up in the mean streets of Brooklyn; became the leading East Coast rapper known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G; and then, in Los Angeles, apparently a victim of the 1990's East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud, was shot dead in a car at the age of 24. We know that from scene one, and the rest is one long flashback narrated by the dead man, spoken with the wisdom of one whose first album was called "Ready to Die." Perhaps oddly, though its hero's fickleness and irresponsibility as a husband and father are amply chronicled and his mother is rarely happy with him, this is one musical screen life that's more full of the joy of making it big than the sorrow of hard knocks.

This biopic is notable for its casual bling-bling look. Warm-colored closeups abound and in grainy night shots even the car headlights look like giant flashy diamonds. It's notable too for the natural charisma of the hefty and talented newcomer Jamal Woolard in the title role, and for the shocking explicitness and sexual vulgarity of the women's rap performances. Two of the main women in the man's life were themselves hip-hop and soul artists, Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). The third was Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell,) his neighborhood girl and mother of his first child, a daughter. Notorious is, up to a point, itself a product of hip-hop culture, exuding its abundance of energy, bad behavior, and danger, and not at all notable for a critical perspective. But director Tillman knows how to make stuff happen, and keep on happening. The movie's replete with convincing scenes, dialogue, and hip-hop types who make the dancing and brawling feel real. Biggie's own son, as chubby as he no doubt himself was as a boy, even plays the young Chris Wallace.

A certain "biopic-itis," as one reviewer calls it, does not sink the film but leaves it scant room to breathe amid the mass of hastily telegraphed incidents crammed in to touch upon all the milestones of the life. Woolard's ease in delivering his spoken lines and drive in rapping make his character engaging and alive. But there should have been more in Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker's screenplay to show what rap and rap-making are about, how Biggie honed his skills and what makes a great rapper better than a decent one. It's good to have a scene of a very young and somewhat nerdy Wallace sitting outdoors writing down rhymes; and the grownup man, incarcerated, filling marbleized notebooks with his verses. And there are enough performance sequences to show what the venues were like in action. You can call me white though, but the rap contest sequence of Eminem, playing an avatar of himself in Curtin Hanson's 8 Mile, is more interesting in the way it details the verbal sparring than the one that shows Biggie's first signal that he's at the top of the game. This is not to say there isn't plenty of music in the film. It's just that the whole idea of making rhymes that dazzle like diamonds and shame the competition is a little too much taken to granted for what is, after all, a (warts and all) celebration of the life.

The 1972's was the height of the crack epidemic, and as a youth Wallace sells the drug to make money. His relationship with his Jamaica-born mother Violetta Wallace, a pre-school teacher, played appealingly by Angela Bassett, is faithful enough to make him hide his flash threads and dirty deals from her. She loves and nurtures him; things are so cozy and bourgeois she calls him "Chrissie-poo." He gets good grades and Violetta pushes him to work hard. But eventually he begins missing two thirds for his classes. Then he messes up and goes to jail. Later he could have been sent up for five years or more, but his childhood friend D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White) takes the rap so he can pursue his career. The movie celebrates friendship and glosses over enmity.

Biggie links up with Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derkk Luke), who has a major setback. Fired from the label Bad Boy Records, Puff starts his own Uptown label and never loses his positivity. Even Biggie's continued drug dealing to support his little girl isn't seen as a minus. The movie does not judge. Though this is a limitation, it avoids heavy-handedness.

It also avoids any explanations of what happens. Since everybody is so positive, including the violent--but like Biggie, smart and talented--Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), the "Cali" star rapper who's depicted as only turning against Biggie due to media hyping the East-West divide, it seems mysterious that both "Pac" and "Big" die of bullet wounds. The only clue is that B.I.G. declared in his first album that he would die a violent death. But even that is not dwelt upon as a theme. The impression this sometimes unpleasant and overlong but lively movie leaves is of too much success and too much bad behavior--strong weed, expensive cars, big checks, French champagne, headlines, all the women you want, and no future. But not for Sean Combs, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy--Sean John for his clothing line. The multi-named star and fashion plate is still alive and well and worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And he produced this movie. "You're gonna wanna see it again," he says. He'd like that.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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