Considering he was (and still is) one of raps biggest stars, a biopic was inevitable, although there was plenty of care taken to ensure it would be cast appropriately. I can remember reading about the casting process and how specific they crew on the film was to get it right and while the reviews for the film took on a 50/50 split, few of them ever cited the films shortcoming due to the acting. No, the acting in the film was really its strong point and even with the negative reviews, the film performed admirably at the box office, making double its budget back worldwide (plus who knows how much more on home video). Now the film, in unrated form, can be owned by fans on either DVD or Blu-ray.
Chronicling the extraordinary life of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, NOTORIOUS follows the young rapper from the tough streets of Brooklyn to the heights of superstardom as he juggles the increasing demands of fatherhood, marriage and a music career. Amid chaos and controversy, Biggie’s remarkable talent and fierce determination help to solidify his legacy as one of hip-hop’s greatest MCs.
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of rap and nor am I a fan of biopics. While Walk the Line was fantastic, I have begun to slowly become bored with the films as they often tell nothing new. Sadly that’s the case with Notorious as well—it’s not a bad film in the least; it just does nothing terribly original or exciting with its subject matter. All of these films about musicians, whether fictional or non, all center around someone who came from nothing to rise to stardom. These are inspirational stories and, hell, often make up some of the most well-known films of our time, but it’s hard to really separate any of them that have come out lately. They all follow a similar visual style, pacing and eventual climax.
However, there are some things to enjoy about the film. Admittedly though I’m not a fan of the genre, the music really is one of the films better qualities, as it is infused from start to finish in the film and the accompanying soundmix because of it is nothing short of room quaking. It’s also interesting to see other rappers that are still around today (Sean Combs, Lil’ Kim) portrayed in the film, if for no other reason than it helps ground the film even more in reality and make it feel even more real.
But more than anything in the film, it was quite amazing to see Jamal Woolard as Christopher ‘Biggie’ Wallace. Again, while I’m not huge fan, it’s hard not to have seen or heard of the man who remains a rap icon and not only seeing Woolard but also hearing him in the film…it’s really quite amazing. Without a doubt the highlight of the film was his performance and while things could get a bit…explicit in some cases, the performance he brought to the film was nothing short of fantastic. Fans especially should check out the film just to see him as I personally think he did a fantastic job—although, again…perhaps not the most informed person to make such a judgment, but still.
Having said all of that, it is a bit odd to watch a film where the title character is just so darn unlikeable. There is nary a moment when you’re actually rooting for Biggie, as he’s often just a rude, crack dealing person who only looks out for himself. In fact, the film is almost a biopic about a villain rather than a hero, as even though he technically came from “nothing,” the means to which he rose to greatness were often underhanded or illegal. Part of the man’s charm and mystique, no doubt, but the film does little to paint him in a pleasant light.
Truth be told there are a lot of layers to this film that could have been explored a whole lot better. Seeing that Biggie isn’t really all that nice of a guy and more interested in the fame, drugs, and women than anything could have been handled in a much more dramatic and darker way, but instead the film simply lays out the story and pinpoints specific targets of his life to dramatize. And the Sean Combs in the film? What exactly was that about, anyway? Derek Luke looks almost nothing like Combs and if they didn’t call him out by name, I would’ve had no idea who it was supposed to be (same goes for the actor playing Tupac). For spending so much time to find the right Biggie, they kind of half-assed it on the rest of the big rappers in the film (again, aside from Lil’ Kim, as actress Naturi Naughton does at least resemble and act like her quite well).
Really the more I watched the film and put up with its mediocrity and predictability, the more I cared less and less about the tragic ending to Biggie’s life. There was little to like about the man and seeing the end of his life just really didn’t make much of an impact. Perhaps that’s where the film faltered—in painting such a stark and supposedly realistic image of the rapper, it gave the audiences nothing to connect to. Unless you’re a fan and already know all about his life, then you’ll likely be as surprised as you are disappointed by the entirety of the film.
While fans will no doubt find it a worthwhile title to add to their collection for the visual storytelling of the rapper, those who know nothing about him or care little for the rap genre will have almost zero interest in this title. My curiosities were minimal before going into it and when I came out I felt entirely indifferent to the film; the characters were largely unrelateable and the ending of the film just left me with nothing to think about or ponder. A Rental for the curious, but otherwise…just pass it on by.
Unfortunately while the remarkable The Wrestler received an unbelievably mediocre Blu-ray release, Notorious receives one of the most packed releases I’ve seen in recent years. The set itself arrives in a standard two-disc Elite Blu-ray case (second disc is the digital copy) and inserts that advertise the format, note the frequent firmware changes for Blu-ray players and, of course, the code for the digital copy. Menus for the film are nicely done and easy to navigate. Also included, obviously are the two different cuts of the film, although the unrated cut is only six minutes longer.
Video arrives in an AVC encoded 2.35:1 1080p transfer that is rather remarkable, as one would expect from a modern film. Having said that, however, the low budget nature of the film does creep up a bit more often here in high definition, with the excess smoke that creeps across the screen and blasted out colors that try to paint the film as being a high-end art piece. Still, it’s an admirable distraction, as otherwise the film would simply be a dull and bland affair, so you have to do what you have to do to spice up what equates to a microwavable meal. The audio, however, is not disappointing in the least as the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix pounds you in the chest from the start and rarely lets up with the hip hop soundtrack in full bloom until the end of the film. There are some subdued moments where the front channels take priority, but some of the crowd sequences fill out the surrounds nicely.
Moving onto the extras we get a copious amount to sort through. Starting off is a set of two Blu-ray exclusives, including BD-Live Feature – The Music, which is nothing more than a trivia track that allows you to “tag and track” your favorite songs in the movie. BonusVIEW – Life After Death: Making NOTORIOUS offers some picture-in-picture goodness to watch along the film if you so desire, although what you see here is going to feel a bit repetitious when combined with the rest of the extras.
First up in the “regular” extras gambit is a Commentary with Director George Tillman, Jr., Co-Screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, Co-Screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker and Editor Dirk Westervelt, which is decidedly more technical than the second Commentary with Producer/Biggie’s Mom Voletta Wallace, Producer/Biggie’s Co-Manager Wayne Barrow and Producer/Biggie’s Co-Manager Mark Pitts. While both tracks have their merits, the second track was more enjoyable for me simply because it was a lot more personal to listen to, whereas the first one merely discusses the production of the film (of which I really didn’t care about, although director Tillman did have a few interesting things to say).
Moving on we have a whole slew of extras to check out, the first of which is Behind the Scenes: “Making of Notorious” Featurette (27:22), followed by I Got a Story to Tell: The Lyrics of Biggie Smalls (9:32). Next up is NOTORIOUS Thugs: Casting the Film (9:07), Biggie Boot Camp (6:50), and Anatomy of a B.I.G. Performance (5:15), which tackles the casting, training, and performance of the actors in the film. Party & Bulls**t (never-before-seen footage of the real B.I.G.) (3:44) is a very rough and raw look at some unseen Biggie footage that is quite an eyesore to watch, due to the numerous amount of glitches that it houses. Next we have The B.I.G. Three-Sixty, where fans can take a tour of the area where Biggie was murdered, complete with clips to accompany. Finally ten Deleted Scenes (12:16) are included as well, but really don’t add much of value to the film (especially since most are just extended bits).
Overall this is certainly an exhaustive release for a film that really wasn’t all that interesting. While the idea started out promising enough, there just wasn’t enough substance to the film to keep viewers interested, myself included. Still, the extras alone are worth checking out if you’re a fan and as such this is a Recommended release for fans—but fans only. Watching more of the rather unlikeable man portrayed in the film isn’t exactly a great way to spend the night.
Notorious is now available on single and three-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray.