Though there was little surprise by the end - how could there be? - "Notorious,'' a movie about the life and death of rapper Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Biggie), still managed to stun, unsettle and move me. It's been 11 years since the still-unsolved murder of the hip-hop icon, and the film does a wonderful job of revisiting that dangerous yet creatively rich time in music history. For a hip-hop fiend like me, it's a bittersweet journey to the days when the Cristal was overflowing, the bling was blinding and the performers burned brightly - but briefly.
The film begins with Wallace as a Catholic-school honor student (portrayed deftly, if a bit eerily, by his son Christopher Wallace Jr.), who gets teased because of his dark skin and his weight. Despite the best efforts of his mother (Angela Bassett), the teenage Biggie ultimately gives in to the kind of peer pressure that turns into an all-too-familiar inner-city tale. He begins to deal drugs, becomes a top crack distributor and ends up in prison, where he focuses on his blossoming rhyming and writing skills. Once he gets out, Wallace (played by Jamal Woolard as an adult) competes in freestyle rap competitions on Brooklyn street corners and comes to the attention of a guy who "knows motherf--ers who know motherf--ers" who introduce him to a young producer named Sean (Puffy) Combs (Derek Luke). Watching the actors lip-sync to "Big Poppa and "Juicy onstage made me still want to bust a move some 10 years later. Along the way, Wallace hooks up with other hip-hop royalty, including Kimberly Jones, who later becomes Lil' Kim. As I watched their dysfunctional partnership on screen, I couldn't help hoping that the end could somehow be different for the Queen Bee, even as I flashed back to the conversations we'd had when she spoke sadly of trying to please Wallace by undergoing plastic surgery to fit his beauty ideal.
Then there's Tupac. "Notorious'' goes to great lengths to emphasize the friendship Tupac Shakur and Wallace shared before bad blood tainted not just their relationship but the entire rap community. Shakur (Anthony Mackie) comes across as the charming and moody man he was, initially celebrating the success of Wallace's first album and giving him tips on dealing with the downside of fame. But a tumultuous marriage to singer Faith Evans, financial responsibilities and his mother's bout with breast cancer all caused Wallace's world to falter. It completely implodes when Shakur is shot and injured in the lobby of a New York record studio and he accuses Smalls (and Combs) of planning it. Seeing Wallace's anguish as Shakur casts him as the bad guy finally gives his fans some insight into the internal turmoil he suffered toward the end of his life.
The rest of the film follows the events and characters (the bicoastal rivalries, the gangs and the records that shared it all with fans) that eventually saw both Shakur and Wallace shot and killed within six months of each other. Smartly, the writers do not delve into suspicions of who killed Wallace; the long and byzantine murder investigation could be its own movie. Instead, "Notorious" highlights a time when hip-hop was arguably at the top of the pop-culture food chain and, not coincidentally, demonstrates why that moment passed with the passing of Wallace and Shakur. That becomes even clearer in the final scene, which features actual footage of Wallace's open hearse being driven through the crowded, cheer- and tear-filled streets of Brooklyn. Watching "Notorious'' was like attending a 10-year high-school reunion and reliving the good old days when the future seemed so bright.