Photo: Des Willie / Redferns / Retna
If you, despite everything, were still holding out hope that Notorious B.I.G. might get the smart, probing biopic that his legacy deserves — through the delays, the director changes, the producers’ appalling decision to cast the rapper via an Internet talent search, etc. — we have some bad news: We’ve read the script, and we’re not optimistic.
Similar recent music bios have been wise to limit their scope to specific parts of their subjects’ histories. The 113-page screenplay for Notorious (by journalist Cheo Hodari Coker) makes the unfortunate decision to pack an entire (albeit short) life into a two-hour movie. 8 Mile’s focus on Eminem’s early, pre-fame career gave the film a natural story arc and taught us things we didn’t already know. Notorious — on paper, at least — plays like a loose-knit highlight reel; it’s basically the screenplay adaptation of Biggie’s Wikipedia entry.
It opens with his murder and funeral, then doubles back to his Brooklyn childhood. We get a few scenes of Biggie at home, in the classroom, and on the corner dealing crack; there are some rap posters in his bedroom, and we see him fill a rhyme book during a nine-month prison sentence, but there’s no real explanation given for how he went from enthusiastic fan to one of hip-hop’s all-time most revered emcees. Nevertheless, by page 30, he’s signed to Puffy’s label, and from there it’s a mad, tensionless dash to the end of his biography, with all emerging conflicts — his mom’s breast cancer, baby-mama drama, various love triangles (Biggie, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim; Biggie, Evans, Tupac) — resolved within a scene or two.
Notorious was purportedly written with input from Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace, and his managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts, all of whom are credited producers on the project. This much is clear in the way that many of Biggie’s most important moments are told after the fact through his conversations with them; we only learn about Biggie’s marriage to Evans when he tells Barrow and Pitts about a month later (though, curiously, we’re there when he asks them both to be his managers), and it’s only in phone calls with his mother that he denies involvement both times Tupac gets shot.
No killer is explicitly fingered in Biggie’s own death either (understandably, we guess); the script makes clear that we never see the shooter’s face. We do, however, see him in a garage cleaning and oiling his weapon in preparation. He has police scanners on his workbench and in his car, along with LAPD credentials on his dashboard that lets him drive past a police blockade on his way to the murder, though there’s no speculation on who he is or who he might’ve been working for.
Anyway, the script isn’t a total wash. The early pages on Biggie’s adolescence are compelling enough — we just wish they’d been more the focus. Two-thirds of Notorious takes place after he’s already famous, dwelling more on his success than his early ambition or talent (which would’ve been way more appealing). It’s hard to imagine anyone these days feeling too inspired by his fame or record sales, since they were hardly replicable even in the nineties as they were happening, much less in today’s music business. The filmmakers would probably have done better to concentrate on what made Biggie one of rap’s greats, or at least given us a scene or two of him honing his craft.
We wanted a penetrating look at the guy who made Ready to Die, but Notorious cuts about as deep as your average, single-disc greatest hits. You may want to adjust your expectations accordingly.We’ve Read the Screenplay for the Notorious B.I.G. Biopic