Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NOTORIOUS - what do you want? A cookie?

When I was a kid, rap music spoke about the menace of crime, poverty, drug addiction and institutional racism. If you go back and listen to The Message, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five talk about people pissing in stairwells and OD'ing. A decade later, and New York dope peddler turned rapper Christopher Wallis aka Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. was talking about diamond earrings, champagne and fucking an endless stream of compliant and thankful women. He did this while posing in shiny suits - simultaneously boasting of his high-class style and his gangster credentials. The narcissism was almost as irritating as his producer, Sean "Puffy" Combs, mumbling in the background of his records and dancing like a fool in the videos. (Voletta Wallace: What kind of grown-ass man calls himself "Puffy?")

All that posturing turned nasty in 1994 when West Coast rapper Tupac Shukar accused Biggie and Puffy of setting him up to be robbed and shot. Biggie retaliated by releasing a record called "Who Shot Ya?" - a diss record, conveniently recorded months before the shooting. Then Death Row Records boss Suge Knight, who comes across as perhaps the nastiest person in this whole sordid mess, nevertheless said what everyone was thinking at the 1995 Source Awards: "Any artists out there who wants to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t wanna have to worry about the executive producer trying to be…all in the videos, all on the records, dancing…come to Death Row!” The bullshit escalated. The media loved it. The East Coast West Coast Rivalry sold papers. It also resulted in the death of Tupac in 1996 and the death of Biggie in 1997. Neither murder case has been solved by the police.

There are a number of interesting films that one might make from this story. Nick Broomfield investigated the murders in his insightful, if brash, documentary BIGGIE AND TUPAC. One could imagine a WALKING THE LINE style biopic that put the rappers into context and showed their impact on the music scene and their legacy. Sadly, NOTORIOUS is neither of these things. After all, we're not going to get cast-iron objectivity in a movie produced by the deceased's mother and one of the leading characters, P. Diddy himself.

In other words, NOTORIOUS is hagiography of the laziest, most clumsy sort. Lazy, because it's so enthralled by Biggie that it doesn't even bother to apologize for the fact that he's a callow, narcissistic fool. It just ASSUMES that we love him too. Clumsy because against all evidence to the contrary, it tries to shoe-horn Biggie's life into a conventional biopic and that means Character Development. Biggie's life has to have meaning - purpose - fulfillment. We have to excuse all his questionable actions because, hell, he was just becoming "A Man".

It reminded me of that Chris Rock sketch: "You know the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want credit for some shit they supposed to do. A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigga will say some shit like, "I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker! What kind of ignorant shit is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!"

Before this movie I didn't know much about Biggie and what I knew didn't endear me to him. After this movie, I feel I don't know, or want to know, anything more. There's absolutely no attempt to string together a coherent picture of his emotional life. Worse still, there's no attempt to put his music in context and to show us why he was a good rapper. You'll learn more about how to put together a record from HUSTLE AND FLOW.

NOTORIOUS is on release in the US and UK and played Berlin 2008, improbably. It opens in Australia on March 12th, in Germany on March 26th, in the Netherlands on April 16th, in Singapore on April 30th, and in Belgium and France on June 24th.

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