Notorious introduces us to a large cast of supporting players from Biggie's on-again/off-again romance with Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) whom he made a star, and his eventual marriage to R&B singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Everything is bling-bling and Cristal until Tupac is shot in New York. He survives and accuses Biggie of trying to kill him even though the allegations are completely false. Thus begins the infamous war between the coasts, turning artistic friends into bitter enemies. Later, Tupac is shot again, this time in Las Vegas. He doesn’t survive this shooting, which makes things go from bad to worse. Six months later, Biggie is killed and the two biggest stars of the genre are gone. Both murders are still unsolved to this day but the East Coast/West Coast feud still lives on.
Notorious is a well-made film despite being a very formulaic picture, feeling more like one of the narratives done on VH1's Behind the Music. Notorious is a gripping story of sex, drugs, and hip-hop but keeps itself very neutral and safe in its storytelling, showcasing Biggie as the hero. For anyone interested at an in-depth look into the infamous feud between Biggie and Tupac it’s probably best to look somewhere else. But if you are interested, I suggest two documentaries, Biggie & Tupac (2002), or Tupac: Resurrection (2003). These films are more objective in recounting the true story than director George Tillman’s depiction. And I can only imagine that objectivity was certainly difficult when making this movie since Notorious was produced by Sean Combs himself and Biggie's mom, Voletta. So, the film pretty much comes off as more of a love letter to Biggie and his fans than anything else.
There is a bright spot, however. Jamal Woolard shines, taking on the gargantuan role of The Notorious B.I.G. Woolard won the role through an open casting and makes his film debut. He is nothing short of terrific. His appearance is authentic and he portrays the two opposing sides of Biggie Smalls--the gangster rapper and the mama's boy--to a tee. Woolard, a rapper in real life, is best known on the scene as Gravy. He also grew up on the same streets of Brooklyn as Wallace did and, ironically, went from drug dealer to rapper as well. It really is the role of a lifetime for Jamal Woolard.
Notorious could very well revive the legend of B.I.G. and just might inspire a counterpart feature film about the much more interesting and challenging character of Tupac Shakur. Both men were very real characters whose lives were sadly cut short at the top of their game, yet they continue to inspire and influence music to this day.
- David Malsch