Monday, January 19, 2009

Movie Review: "Notorious"

This theatrical adaptation of the life and times of The Notorious B.I.G. was one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2009 (probably the most anticipated not based on a comic book), everyone from Hip-Hop heads to Hollywood executives and from longtime fans that followed Biggie since “Unsigned Hype” to casual listeners only familiar with “Juicy” and “Hypnotize” eagerly awaited to see how a movie studio would turn one the most triumphant and tragic stories of the 90’s into a blockbuster for mass consumption at multiplexes in the suburbs.    

Obviously, the blogging community will be inundated with posts either praising or condemning the movie’s portrayal of B.I.G., but to say the subject matter of “Notorious” is of special interest for me would be a huge understatement.  I have been a die-hard Biggie fan since he was extolling the virtues of both “Party & Bullsh*t” and I vividly remember where I was the first time I heard “Ready To Die,” “Life After Death” and when I got the tragic news that he was shot and killed.  I got the “Ready to Die” cassette tape on a friday during the fall of my junior year of high school and that night I blew off my boys (sorry, Iceberg) so I could sit in my bedroom and listen to the tape twice in it’s entirety with no break or intermission of any kind except to turn the tape over after “The What” to hear “Juicy.”  I remember being shocked by the ending of “Suicidal Thoughts” but acknowledging that the game changed drastically with that gun shot and Puffy’s exasperated “Aye, Yo, Big” and that a new level of artistry for rappers bearing their souls on wax had been reached.  I was way less apathetic and jaded when I was 17 and I have no problem admitting that this record blew my mind.   Strangely enough, I got the news of Biggie’s death from my college roommate after I had just returned from a Sunday morning run, during which I was listening to that same “Ready To Die” cassette in my yellow, Sony walkman (remember those?).  The bottom line is I have been a fan of B.I.G.’s since I was wearing a Starter jacket, Reebok Pumps and a hat with the tag on it, so I was as excited to see this movie as just about any film since I was in kindergarten and my mom took me to see how the Star Wars trilogy was resolved in “Return of the Jedi.”  Overall, it was an enjoyable film, but there were some issues that both casual and serious fans should be made aware. 

The pacing, cinematography and soundtrack make this one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a while.  It is filmed like a two hour music video that works as a highlight reel of Biggie’s best (meeting Puffy, winning Source Awards, enjoying new found financial freedom) and worst (selling crack to a pregnant woman, a prison bid, a turbulent love life and his tragic murder) moments. If anybody falls asleep in the theatre they are either a narcoleptic or dead.  The movie packs so many high-octane scenes into two hours that those not familiar with the story will leave the theatre with their heads spinning, but for those familiar with Biggie’s saga it works to keep them enthralled in the rise and eventual fall of one of the most important musicians of the last two decades.  

All the actors do a respectable job portraying some of the biggest stars of the 90’s, but the problem for the audience is that most of these figures are still prominent in today’s entertainment industry.   It is hard to take actors playing musicians and celebrities that are still active in our collective consciousness seriously. Watching Derek Luke dance like Puff Daddy looks more like watching Chris Rock parody Puffy in his “Champagne” video (if you haven’t watched this in a while, youtube it, it’s still funny) and watching Papa Doc from “8 Mile” act like 2pac is just weird.  If these figures where not still dominating Hip-Hop, “Notorious” might be a classic, but because the viewer is constantly comparing the actors to their real life counterparts the movie remains somewhat of a curiosity with everything feeling just a little off.  The only glaring mistake in casting was using the kid that portrayed a young 50 Cent in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” as Lil’ Cease, he was simply too young and too small to realistically portray one of Biggie’s best friends, the scenes of them performing together look like an 80’s baby trying to play with He-Man and Star Wars action figures together, you can do it for a while but eventually the charade gets old because they don’t look like they should even be in the same universe.

The coolest part of the movie for B.I.G. aficionados is the insane attention to detail to properly portray the era and the “Easter Eggs” hidden in various scenes. There are scenes of Suge Knight stuttering at The Source Awards, Faith Evans looking wasted in a photo with 2pac and numerous magazine covers recreated with actors that will be instantly recognizable to any true Hip-Hop head.  The filmmakers also go to great lengths to make many of Biggie’s rhymes come to life, from the Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D posters in his room to the scene of him freestyling wearing a “red and black lumberjack with the hat to match” These are hidden throughout the film much the same way comic book movies feature addresses, restaurants and minor characters that will be recognizable to long time fans, but not disrupt the continuity of the movie for the uninitiated.  

While there are some great scenes in the movie, the scene with B.I.G. having sex with Lil’ Kim is about 4 min. too long, a little uncomfortable to watch and adds absolutely nothing to the movie, especially because most fans were well aware that the two hooked up when they walked into the theatre.  Also, depending on who you ask, there were some glaring omissions, I personally would have liked to have seen depictions of Easy Mo B and DJ Premier in the recording studio, his relationships with Jay-Z (he crowned him next to blow) and Nas (supposedly the target of “Kick In The Door”) and at least a mention of Charlie Baltimore.  However, to include all the events of this MC’s life would have turned “Notorious” into an epic mini-series, and in today’s age of attention spans shortened by MTV and video games this movie did a great job of packing a powerful punch in a relatively short period of time.  

Whether you can recite every Biggie song by heart, or just enjoy his verse on “Only You” when it comes on at the club, “Notorious” is a fascinatingly entertaining movie and should be experienced with the crowds, big screen and surround sound of a theatre before it takes it’s place in your DVD collection in a few months.  

Spoiler Alert: Contrary to rumors, if you wait until the end of the credits Jay-Z does not appear in Biggie’s condo and propose “The Commission” a la Samuel L. Jackson as Lt. Nick Fury in “Iron Man.”...just a heads up.

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