There are many things that can be said about Biggie Smalls, the rapper officially known as the Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down in a hail of bullets on Wilshire Boulevard in 1997 when he was just 24. But the one that fits best on his massive frame is a slight one: flow.
Flow was there in his rhymes, a hypnotic seduction of words weaving and teasing around you like the perpetual haze trailing from his blunts. It was there in the deep rumble of his voice, in the slow, liquid roll of his body as he moved. And it is there in Jamal Woolard, the young rapper who plays him in "Notorious," a performance that goes a long way toward saving a movie that has fallen obsessively in love with its subject.
George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker have fallen right into the pit alongside so many who have come before them.
The sheer weight of all the bits and pieces of Biggie's journey from the drug-soaked ghetto of his Bed-Stuy boyhood to artistic rap powerhouse and finally to the deadly streets of his newly minted manhood threaten at times to drown the film. But then Woolard's chocolate pudding cheeks -- he packed 30 pounds onto his already sizable body to play Biggie -- will break into a smile that makes you want to stay a little longer. It was a look the rapper used with all the women in his life when trying to escape his latest indiscretion, until, as it does in the film, it starts to lose its power.
"Notorious" begins at the end. Biggie has come to Los Angeles as a man and a metaphor -- attempting to diffuse and defy the East Coast/West Coast rap war that had been spraying bullets across the country and into bodies of the genre's angry artists for years. In a world where the industry heavyweights are record labels called Bad Boy and Death Row, and the music is like a corner crack house -- dirty, dark and lethal -- maybe that was the way the story was destined to unfold.
Six months earlier, another rap legend, 25-year-old Tupac Shakur, was gunned down in Las Vegas, and the afterburn of that killing was still white-hot. Death threats were choking Biggie's cell as he left the Vibe magazine party after the Soul Train Music Awards that night.
A passing car, a gun and pop, pop, pop, Biggie's gone -- a scene that propels us back to the Brooklyn walk-up where it all began for Christopher Wallace, the bright, chubby boy whom a classmate deemed "too fat, too black and too ugly" to amount to anything. That same kid would ultimately, in the hands of producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (played by Derek Luke in the film), sell millions of records, many of them after his death, and help take rap from the mixed-tape black market of the urban streets into the mainstream with his seminal talent and sound.
Keep in mind that the spin we see here -- there are countless, much-debated theories about who did what to whom and when -- has been carefully calibrated by those who loved Big Poppa best, and so it is a life story buffed to a high sheen.
Angela Bassett, whose cheekbones alone could tear a man to ribbons, plays Wallace's iron-willed but loving single mother, Voletta. In a scene that tells you all you need to know about their relationship, Voletta discovers her now-towering teenage son is dealing drugs and orders him out of the house with a look and a tone that deflates his swaggering machismo with the speed of a needle plunged into a balloon.
Drugs, money, a baby, jail and then success and fame come in rapid succession, Biggie's rap and rep crystallizing and gaining power with each move. When childhood friend D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White) comes to visit Biggie after a car accident has temporarily stalled his life and his career, the rapper utters that familiar lament of the rich and famous: that success is not all it's cracked up to be. "Better than the corner, though," D-Roc says. But not enough.
Biggie always described himself as "an average nigga from Brooklyn" who was just telling that story in his rhymes; that it proved to be true, just another ghetto-born young black man dying a violent death, is the sad tragedy that provides the movie's subtext. But like Biggie, "Notorious" has a fine time along the way, with Woolard channeling the rapper's sweetness and wit as comfortably as his pathos.
For those already familiar with the characters that populated Biggie Smalls' life and the rap world, some of the casting will seem inspired -- not for whom they are; many, like Woolard, are largely unknown -- but for the uncanny way they mirror the real deal. Antonique Smith, who plays Faith Evans, the creamy R&B chanteuse who would become Biggie's wife and the mother of his son, is delicious in the role. Naturi Naughton gives Lil' Kim, a rapper and Biggie's longtime lover, a raw, raging edge that scalds everything around her. Outside of Biggie, the toughest essence to bottle up is Puffy; Derek Luke tries but can't match the man.
"Notorious" is both helped and hurt by its visual narrative -- transitions in Biggie's life are captured in a shutter-speed collage of images that feed like a hungry barracuda off the energy of the music. At other times, heat-seeking moments that feel wet with sweat are derailed by split-screen conversations, sometimes with half the screen a yawning black hole, that feel as if they were patched in at the last minute.
Through it all are the rhymes and the music, hugely enjoyable in their own right, and the long, large shadow of Biggie. The camera is used to powerful effect here when it takes time to linger on Woolard's face and let him use his bulk to absorb scenes, making this very, very long film about the rapper's very short life worth the effort.