Notorious: Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray)
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 123/129 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: April 21, 2009
Review Date: May 1, 2009
Show business biographies often fall into the clichéd mold of desperate childhood, troubled youth, rise to stardom, and the inevitable fall. George Tillman Jr.’s Notorious is no different. Offering up a predictable, clunky warts-and-all look at the rapper known as Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G., Notorious fails to offer anything new to the mix. It’s a predictable, overlong road to fame and fortune film that ends in tragedy.
Tiring of his mama’s boy persona that gets him no respect on the street, Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard) begins dealing drugs and is eventually arrested while still a teen. While in the joint, he begins seriously writing down rap lyrics that eventually come to the attention of rising record entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) once Chris is released from prison. Eventually cutting a CD that goes straight to the top of the charts, Biggie Smalls, as Chris comes to be called, becomes the East Coast’s first big rap artist, a domain which had previously been dominated by Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and other West Coast rappers. Though originally friendly, Tupac and Biggie eventually come to a parting of the ways leading to a serious and dangerous rivalry pitting East Coast against West Coast for domination of the lucrative hip-hop marketplace. In his personal life, Biggie also drifts from girl to girl fathering children he takes only sporadic interest in and leaving behind a trail of broken hearts.
Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker’s script tackles Biggie’s romantic conquests and breakups in chop-a-block fashion, confusing enough that we’re never altogether sure which mother of which child he’s currently being faithful to or interested in. The rags to riches stuff is familiar and perfunctory, and the writers aren’t able to imbue in their script a satisfactory explanation of what made Biggie’s raps so much more special or more identifiable to his urban fans at the time than the plethora of other rap artists that were also performing during the era. Having Biggie narrate his own story from the grave is also a rather prosaic idea, and it’s jarring when his mother takes over the narration for the film’s final minutes. Director George Tillman handles the several rap concert scenes so well that one might think he was seeing real life footage as opposed to stage recreations. Kudos to film editors Dirk Westervelt and Steven Rosenblum for a lively assemblage of footage that gives additional energy to these concerts which might otherwise seem static or repetitive. There’s also a lyrical moment marking the passage of time in Biggie’s prison cell as items continually appear on his walls as the months pass.
Jamal Woolard had never acted in a film before, but he does a more than credible job in the demanding title role (though I never quite understood B.I.G.’s enormous appeal to the ladies. Featurettes insist he had a wonderful sense of humor that could charm anyone, but we see almost none of that in the finished film.) Angela Bassett gets top billing as the mother of Christopher Wallace, and she’s brilliant in the role. Unfortunately, she’s gone for a large chunk of the movie, enough that I thought she had died from the cancer that she mentions early on, but she survives to this day (indeed, Voletta Wallace is one of the film’s producers). Derek Luke seems a bit short to be playing Sean “Puffy” Combs, but his moments in the spotlight show sufficient charisma to bring off the part. Naturi Naughton nails the role of rap star Li’l Kim while Antonique Smith does just fine with the conflicted Faith Evans. Anthony Mackie makes a very believable and often charismatic Tupac Shakur. Biggie’s real-life son Christopher Jordan Wallace plays him as a young boy exhibiting some very natural acting talent.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Though sharpness and color levels are usually consistently good, there are occasions when softness intrudes and when color seems slightly desaturated (though this may have been the director’s intention. I never quite figured out why it happened when it happened.) Black levels are deep almost to the point of crushing. Flesh tones are usually spot-on but once again sometimes take on a yellowish cast for no good reason. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix comes to startling life during the rap concert sequences, but the mix is much less interesting throughout much of the rest of the film where opportunities for more surround envelopment are not exploited fully. LFE are strong during the concerts but MIA elsewhere.
Also provided on the disc is the director’s cut of the movie (the viewer chooses which version he wants to see when first loading the disc. It can also be chosen from the main menu). It runs six minutes longer than the theatrical cut, mostly through extended music sequences.
The disc provides two audio commentaries, both of about equal merit. In the first, director George Tillman Jr., writers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, and editor Dirk Westervelt talk more specifically about the actual production of the picture. In the second, producer/mother Voletta Wallace and producers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts give a different slant to their remarks discussing the real life situations that show up in the film (though they tend to describe the on-screen events too much).
“Life After Death: Making Notorious” is the interactive feature the viewer can turn on to allow the featurettes to interrupt the movie while playing via branching. The featurettes mentioned below can also be watched separately.
“Behind the Scenes: The Making of Notorious” is a 27 ¼-minute featurette covering the major aspects of making the movie featuring interviews with the director (who explains the lengthy casting process), producer Voletta Wallace, and the film’s prop master, costumer designer, and choreographer. It’s in 1080p.
“Notorious Thugs: Casting the Film” is a 9-minute 1080i featurette with the film’s two casting directors describing the cattle call auditions on both coasts to cast the leading role and the other principal parts in the film.
“I Got a Story to Tell: The Lyrics of Biggie Smalls” attempts to explain how the rapper changed the dynamics of rap through his storytelling lyrics. This 9 ½-minute featurette is presented in 1080i.
“Biggie Boot Camp” shows us in a 6 ¾-minute vignette moments from the three month training session to get all of the principal artists comfortable playing the rappers and performers in the picture. It’s in 1080p.
“Anatomy of a B.I.G. Performance” shows how actual footage of Biggie’s concerts in Toronto and in Brooklyn was used as the models for the recreations in the film. This 5 ¼-minute featurette is in 1080p.
“Party & Bullshit” is the actual Toronto footage of the performance of this rap number. It lasts 3 ¾ minutes and is in 480i.
“The B.I.G. Three-Sixty” is an interactive map of the Los Angeles streets where Biggie was shot featuring seven short featurettes the viewer can select showing behind the scenes footage of the filming of the climactic parts of the movie.
There are ten deleted scenes which can be played separately or in one 12 ½ minute chunk.
The BD-Live portion of the disc allows the user to mark songs during the film for his own personal play list and then later to go onto the web to listen to the selected songs or purchase them. A trivia track can also be activated with pop-up facts about the songs in this area.
The disc features trailers for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Valkyrie, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, and Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy. The trailer for Notorious is not provided but can be found on other Fox Blu-rays.
The second disc contains a digital copy of the film and instructions for loading it onto Mac and PC devices.
Earnest performances and accurate period details do much to overcome an erratic script for Notorious. Fans of the rapper the Notorious B.I.G. will find much to like here. Others may find a rental would suit them best for this title.