Notorious: Unrated Director’s Cut
April 30, 2009
Christopher Wallace aka the Notorious B.I.G. was a larger-than-life rapper who worked his way up from the streets of Brooklyn to become one of the most popular rappers in the 1990s until his tragic death in 1997. His brief but colourful life was certainly ripe for cinematic treatment and with the guidance of Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace and his good friend Sean “Diddy” Combs as producers, his life story has finally been immortalized on celluloid with Notorious (2009).
The film traces Biggie’s (Woolard) humble beginnings as an aspiring rapper and drug dealers on the streets of Brooklyn, which provided him with plenty of material for his songs and also gave him all kinds of opportunities to hone his rapping skills as he battled local rappers. His strict mother (Bassett) tries to keep him on the straight and narrow but it is a losing battle and she finally kicks him out when he misses too many days of school.
Along the way, Biggie gets a girl pregnant and serves a small stretch in prison while his mom provides emotional and spiritual support. Once he gets out, Biggie shifts his focus to rapping and comes to the attention of up-and-coming music producer Sean Combs (Luke). With Combs’ guidance and business savvy, Biggie starts earning some serious money, as well as launching both of their careers. Notorious covers Biggie’s friendship and feud with Tupac Shakur (Mackie) and his turbulent relationships with Lil’ Kim (Naughton) and his wife Faith Evans (Smith).
The casting for this film is spot-on as the filmmakers opt for a cast of largely unknowns that don’t actually look like the famous people that they are portraying but do an excellent job of capturing their spirit and, in many cases, their swagger and attitude. This is epitomized with newcomer Jamal Woolard who plays Biggie. He doesn’t really look like the rapper but he’s got the speech and mannerisms down cold, especially his rapping technique – he did all of his own rapping in the film. He also gives some depth to this iconic figure by showing several sides – the confident rapper and the guy who loves his mom.
With Notorious being an officially sanctioned biopic, it is somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t shy away from Biggie’s womanizing – the abandonment of the girl he got pregnant and his daughter for Lil’ Kim only to leave her for Faith whom he marries only to cheat on her while on tour. The film does a nice job of charting Biggie’s rise to fame and fortune with solid direction by George Tillman, Jr. who certainly has an affinity for the material. The film does tend to marginalize and simplify Lil’ Kim (who has bad-mouthed the film in the press) and simplify the whole East Coast/West Coast feud between Tupac and Biggie by basically absolving Biggie of any responsibility for what happened. Of course, there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding what went down, including their respective deaths, that we will probably never know the truth. As far as biopics go, Notorious is pretty good and does a decent job dramatizing Biggie’s life, while providing a vibrant snapshot of the rap game in the mid-‘90s.
The first disc allows you to watch either the theatrical version or the extended director’s cut.
There is also an audio commentary by director George Tillman, Jr., co-screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, co-screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker and editor Dirk Westervelt. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is on how the film got made with all kinds of anecdotal information about the production.
Also included is a commentary by producer/Biggie’s Mom Voletta Wallace, producer/Biggie’s co-manager Wayne Barrow and producer/Biggie’s co-manager Mark Pitts. As you would imagine, this track is all about Biggie’s life and the accuracy of the film.
The second disc contains the bulk of the supplemental material. “Behind the Scenes: The Making of Notorious” takes a look at how this film came together. Biggie’s mother had read all kinds of books and seen documentaries about her son and wanted to do her own take. The filmmakers saw a lot of people for Biggie but it wasn’t until Ms. Wallace saw Jamal Woolard that the producers knew they had found the right person. Derek Luke talks about the challenge of playing someone like Sean Combs. The filmmakers shot on location, often on the same streets and places that Biggie frequented to add to the authenticity of the project.
“I Got a Story to Tell: The Lyrics of Biggie Smalls” takes a look at Biggie with DJs, friends, families and journalists sharing stories about the man and praising him. They also laud his ability as a storyteller.
“Notorious Things: Casting the Film” examines the challenge of casting roles for famous people who are mostly still alive and not to do a simple imitation. We see audition footage and soundbites with the actors who were cast in key roles. Some of the actual people comment on the actors playing them.
“Biggie Boot Camp” was a three to four month program to transform key cast members into rappers. The filmmakers hired a dialect coach and choreographer to get these people ready to play their famous counterparts. The director takes us through the process with behind-the-scenes footage.
“Anatomy of a B.I.G. Performance” takes a look at how they created a Biggie Small’s concert and which performances they picked for the film and why.
“Party and Bullshit” features actual archival footage of key performances in the film. It is amazing how well it was recreated.
“The B.I.G. Three-Sixty” allows you to see how the filmmakers recreated Biggie’s murder. They did a lot of research and shot on location.
Finally, there are 10 deleted scenes that feature more of the events leading up to Biggie’s murder and, of course, more of him rapping and establishing his reputation.