Life after death for rapper on B.I.G. screen

Mon Jan 12, 2009 8:07am EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., died in a hail of bullets in March 1997 at age 24, he left behind a compelling yet contradictory legacy as one of hip-hop's premier personalities. So it is with "Notorious," a riveting but strangely elusive biopic that opens on Friday via Fox Searchlight.

The film brings aboard many of the key players from his life as producers but can't quite solve the mystery of who was "Biggie."

Nevertheless, this is the first gotta-see movie of 2009. It has terrific performances, a powerful soundtrack and eye-catching visuals. Normally, such a film will turn out hip-hoppers and its core audience. But Fox Searchlight knows how to market to a crossover crowd, so this might also be first hit film of 2009.

The story begins on that March night in Los Angeles as Biggie leaves a party after a music awards show, then flashes back through his life with the young rapper acting as narrator, almost as if he were telling his own story as his life flashes before his eyes.

And flash it does. One minute he's an overweight kid in Brooklyn's poor Bedford-Stuyvesant 'hood, sitting on a stoop writing song lyrics -- the kid is poignantly played by Biggie's own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace -- and the next he's a streetcorner pusher, then a father, convict and, upon release from prison, a man who sees hip-hop as a way to channel street smarts into fame, fortune and just possibly maturity.

Jamal Woolard, a rapper who hails from near Biggie's old neighborhood and possesses his imposing size and swagger, is pleasingly sweet-natured and entirely credible as this overgrown kid who has a knack for translating a ghetto everyman's life and dreams into musical poetry. His girth makes him lean into characters' faces and into scenes at startling angles that feel intensely intimate.

For a man apparently making his first film, Woolard carries the movie like a pro. Cross your fingers that this is no fluke, for this guy could be a real comer.

Director George Tillman Jr. has assembled a first-rate picture, splashing across the screen a colorful milieu, strong emotional scenes and vivid characters that seemingly move to hip-hop rhythms. You get a fleeting impression of a life lived large -- pun and image intended -- but also a sense of how hip-hop artists exploit the visions and fantasies of the mean streets.   Continued...

<p>Jamal Woolard as Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., in Fox Searchlight's "Notorious." REUTERS/Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight/Handout</p>