Studio: 20th Century Fox
Starring: Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Jamal Woolard, Anthony Mackie
Directed By: George Tillman Jr.
Running Time: Theatrical – 123 minutes, Director’s Cut – 126 minutes
Ratings: Theatrical – R, Director’s Cut – Unrated
Notorious follows the young rapper, Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, from the tough streets of Brooklyn to the heights of superstardom as he juggles the increasing demands of fatherhood, marriage and a music career. Amid chaos and controversy, Wallace’s remarkable talent and fierce determination help to solidify his legacy as one of hip-hop’s greatest Mcs.
By no means am I an expert regarding the hip-hop genre of music. Nor do I consider myself a supporter of the genre as it just doesn’t “speak to me.” Also, since I do not follow the music business at all aside from the occasional band documentary that my roommates offer up in our living room, it is safe to say that I had heard about the two pivotal climactic events portrayed within this film but never had any idea what they were all about… that is, until I saw this film.
Notorious caught me entirely by surprise. A biopic about a man in an industry I have little interest in beyond pressing the play and stop buttons and about a man making music that I really had no interest in put me in a severe state of procrastination when faced with its review. I felt daunted by the notion of not being able to connect with the material and therefore not do the filmmakers and everyone involved (not to mention the millions of hip-hop fans) justice in my analysis. It turns out that old adage is true. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Notorious is the biopic portrayal of a man overcoming obstacles and dealing with success in the face of adversity. Like many other biopic tales of musicians, it covers all of the bases surrounding drugs, marriage, and infidelity. Where this story differs greatly though is in the war-like rivalries established within the respective industry. West Coast vs. East Coast rap politics never struck me as something that was so passionate amongst artists and their respective audiences. After all, they are all just trying to express the same sentiments about their life experiences. Does which side of the continent they live on really make a difference? Apparently that difference is enough to have become a major catalyst for some serious drama. As a biopic, there isn’t much that I can write about the story without re-hashing plot details seen in many other films of its genre. However, this film earns its merit in the areas of direction and performances.
George Tillman Jr. obviously had great respect for Christopher Wallace and his work. The director handles every frame of footage with a careful attention to showing the man instead of the mogul. Too often, the storyteller likes to raise his subject onto a metaphorical pedestal in order to have their fall seem that much more detrimental. However, Tillman avoids that cliché and really tries to tell it like it is. His main character is just a man and remains such throughout the entire film. Even when thousands of screaming fans are reaching out to him from the audience at his performances, the man isn’t glamourized. I always felt as though I was being told, “Yes, this could easily be you dealing with this situation because he is just a human being dealing with life the same way as everyone else does.” This was the crucial element for someone like me being able to experience the film. Someone who has no interest in rap or hip-hop was able to empathize with this rap mogul through the human experience and was not limited by the industry experience. The best example of this was when there were scenes with plenty of colour and award ceremonies and night clubs. Not once did I feel like that glitz was added to glamourize the man. Instead, it glamourized the environment around the man while isolating B.I.G. as a man swimming within the glam pool.
As for the performances within the film. It is obvious that Jamal Woolard deserves credit for carrying such an important role. His performance does carry the film from start to finish. However, the performances that really stood out for me were those of the females in the cast. Angela Bessett as Voletta Wallace, mother to the ambitious lead character, is everything one could ask for. Her connection to her son is never questioned. Not even when she is forced to kick him out of her apartment. Even her cruellest moment has a foundation in doing what she feels is best for her son. Julia Pace Mitchell is someone that I wish I had seen more of in the film. As Biggie’s first love and mother of his first child she stood out as having many interesting layers to the character that never quite got fully explained. Naturi Naughton explodes on the screen as Lil’ Kim. Her performance looks effortless as a woman made famous by the harsh realities that befall her as only a professional project for Biggie and not the long term lover of his which she desperately wishes to be. And, Antonique Smith commands the screen as Faith Evans. Her performance is peppered with an incredible number of nuances that really keep you with her at all times through Biggie’s story. If he is doing something irrational, I always felt like asking how Faith was going to feel about it. Truly remarkable when an actress playing a supporting role can be that gripping in the shadow of an iconic personality such as Notorious B.I.G.
Notorious is a film that I can’t recommend for its story. It follows a formula that is fairly typical for any biopic about a musician. That’s not to say that it was written that way. Biopics, by the very content upon which they are based, often have no choice in staying true to real life events. However, the film is a delight through the different style of presentation thanks to the direction of George Tillman Jr. Also, some very powerful performances from the entire cast, the women in particular, make for an enjoyable 129 minutes of entertainment. The unique style of music also helps keep the genre fresh.
Crave Factor – 8
Features denoted with an * are only available via the theatrical presentation of the film.
*Commentary with Director George Tillman Jr., Screenwriters Reggie Rock Blythewood & Cheo Hodary Coker, and Editor Kirk Westerville – This group of guys really brings another level of life to the man that was Christopher Wallace through this commentary. Reggie and Cheo offer plenty of personal/research detail about Wallace that is subtley referred to in the film. George Tillman Jr. reinforces those details by pointing out the moments he created in order to emphasize those aspects of Biggie’s personality and how they work to do so. Much like the film itself, I was pleasantly surprised by this commentary track. Believe it or not, I feel like I know that much more about Christopher Wallace because of this commentary than I did after watching the film. They also discuss many details surrounding the technical aspects of filming. Most notably are all of the interesting details surrounding filming on so many actual locations where the events on screen took place in real life.
*Commentary with Producers Voletta Wallace & Wayne Barrow & Mark Pitts – A much more heartfelt commentary track than the previous one because of Christopher Wallace’s mother. She offers plenty of personal insight behind who her son really was. Much like the movie implies, the man known in the media as Notorious B.I.G. was more of a character than a real person. And, who better to tell us who the real person was than the person who reared him and watch him grow up. The other two individuals focus more on the technical aspects of the story and the filming process. Their offerings fall mostly into the category of “already heard that a thousand times.”
*The Music – Trivia based feature. Not entirely certain how it works because it is implied that you need to purchase tracks from iTunes. But, here is the description given on the disc. “By activating this feature trivia will appear during each Notorious track. You can create a personal playlist of your favourite songs and purchase them through iTunes.”
*BonusView: Life After Death: Making Notorious – Throughout the theatrical version of the film a picture-in-picture window pops up occasionally on screen and offers interview clips and miscellaneous footage that adds to the depth of Biggie’s life. These segments can also be viewed as a single feature all its own if the ‘Play All’ option is selected. Altogether, these offerings total 26:45 in length.
Behind The Scenes: Making Notorious (27:22) – Many voices speak out about what the film is meant to be, which is exactly what I mentioned in my review. They re-iterate time and again how the film was approached from every angle in order to show the story of the man and not the musician. The real life Voletta offers plenty of her own history with the project. Overall, the typical topics get covered, but they all seem strangely fresh and unique for some reason. I can’t quite put a finger on exactly why. Nevertheless, this is one feature that really deserves the time to watch.
I Got A Story To Tell: Lyrics Of Biggie Smalls (9:32) – There isn’t much to learn from this extra other than hearing in words how Biggie would work in the studio. And, even that is pretty evident in the portrayal on screen within the film itself.
Notorious Thugs: Casting The Film (9:05) – The viewer gets to learn about the reasons why certain supporting actors were cast in their respective roles. Again, like the actual performances, the women are of most interest in this extra feature.
Biggie Boot Camp (6:48) – This extra is a narration by director George Tillman Jr. accompanied by footage from the time spent getting the cast ready for shooting. You get to learn how much work went into pre-production for the cast and why the director felt it was all necessary.
Anatomy Of A B.I.G. Performance (5:15) – George Tillman tells us what he was trying to do with filming the concert scenes and how he ultimately felt about the outcomes of those shoots.
Party & Bullsh**t (3:43) – This is actual archive footage of Biggie’s performance of ‘Party And Bullshit’ with Puffy. Having seen the film, it is quite amazing to find out just how George Tillman Jr. and cast were able to recreate the energy of the show.
The B.I.G. Three-Sixty (3:38) – Wow. This is a very interesting interactive feature where you get the ability to navigate 360 degrees around the intersection where Biggie was gunned down. Subsequently, each angle has video segments related to either historical accuracies or how they filmed the event.
Deleted Scenes (12:15 as ‘Play All’) – Nothing in this collection of cutting room scraps that would have added to the depth of the story.
Crave Factor – 8
2.40:1 Widescreen / AVC
Wondering what to expect from the video quality that Blu-ray can provide? Look no further than the release of Notorious. With the story of Christopher Wallace comes a journey through every aspect of life, along with every environment imaginable. From daylight to night club this transfer brings “all dat.” The colouring of this film is nothing short of brilliant as primary and secondary colours rip off of the screen and slap the visual cortex gracefully enough to make it want for more. Plenty of dark scenes offer the transfer to show resilience in its handling of black levels. Depth is never compromised by crushed or bleeding blacks. Artifacting is left way in the past with this phenomenal work. It really can’t get much better than this.
Crave Factor – 10
5.1 DTS HD MA
The only audio track option available on this release is a fully loaded DTS HD MA experience. From the dialogue to the musical performances, this track strikes all of the right chords. Every environmental detail is clear and crisp as the story unfolds. The bass/treble management is so tight with this release that the scenes with musical performances incorporated therein do not stand out. That’s not to say that they aren’t exceptional. They blend perfectly to create a fully seamless piece of entertainment. More often than not the viewer is treated to musical performances as stand out moments in film. That is always enforced by giving the audio a bit of a tweak during said performances. Not in this case. The story is meant to be experienced as one fluid event and the audio is handled with perfection in that regards. Heck, I’m not even the remotest fan of the type of music featured in the film, but it all sounded DAMN good!
Crave Factor – 10
The main menu is composed via still shots of the different characters from the film in an artistic montage that reminds me of the way in which motion comics are created. The still images travel on screen in relation to the background, giving the whole thing a 3D type of effect. The audio clip accompanying the main disc menu is one of Notorious B.I.G.’s more famous contributions to the hip-hop industry, ‘Hypnotize.’ Menu options are presented horizontally along the bottom of the screen in big bold lettering (appropriately). It is a very respectful, effective, and appropriate menu design.
The pop-up menu during playback functions exactly as in the main menu.
Crave Factor – 8
20th Century Fox pays tribute to the subject of the film with this Blu-ray release of Notorious. With video and audio quality that are as near to perfection as one can get, there is no reason to look at other formats as an option. The Blu-ray can knock them all out of contention. The bonus material may not all be top notch in regards to content; However, there definitely is plenty that helps the viewer better understand the man beyond what is just presented in the film. And, as for the film itself? Nobody can deny that it has something a little fresh to offer in the biopic genre. Both fans of the hip-hop artist and fans of good storytelling will be able to appreciate the final product that is Notorious on Blu-ray.