Jamal Woolard, Naturi Naughton, and Angela Bassett star in a film written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker and directed by George Tillman, Jr.

Going going, back back, in rap history, <em>Notorious</em> has Jamal Woolard as Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G.

Maybe it’s not a work of sheer genius, but Notorious blows past all the recent tragedy-tinged pop music biopics. Unlike Ray or Walk the Line (or even Walk Hard, for that matter), Notorious neatly avoids the now-standard setup/knock-down moralistic micro-drama that tends to see musical megastars as lucky people who become victimized by their own appetite for fame-which usually are objectified by drug cravings. This one is more about the music. And anyway, Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace) furnishes his own metaphor; even the film’s tagline equates Biggie’s girth with his ambition: “No dream is too big.” You’ll enjoy this film’s blithe reluctance to judge him moralistically, though. The camera gracefully embraces this big body, played by Jamal Woolard who gained 50 pounds to become Smalls, especially during a number of surprisingly explicit and often witty sex scenes. Far sexier, however, is Naturi Naughton as Lil’ Kim, whose demure-but-assertive introduction slowly cascades into a performance sparked with anger-an almost maniacal combination of words and movement. (In fact, hip-hop’s renowned penchant for misogyny is frequently balanced by powerful women here.) Many of the “live” performances, like Smalls rocking the mike with “Partying and Bullshit,” furnish the kind of re-created thrills we really expect from rock star biographies.

But this film’s true love is urban landscapes. Michael Grady’s cinematography seems to actually fondle the city scenes from do-or-die bed sty to grownup Manhattan and finally out to Los Angeles for Biggie’s solo stint on Wilshire Boulevard.

Fans have registered deep disappointment that Notorious didn’t “solve” the assassinations of Tupac Shakur or Biggie. But wouldn’t that just introduce another form of sanctimoniousness? Notorious leaves us free to draw our own conclusions. Was all this East Coast/West Coast rivalry partying or bullshit? (Or media crap?) I thought of the New Testament proverb about people living by the sword dying by it, but that’s just me. What’s truly good about Notorious is nobody forces a lesson from Biggie Smalls. I just feel sorry that he’s not around to add more rhymes to his notoriety.


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