DVD Review: Notorious (2009) -- Collector's Edition; Unrated Director's Cut

"Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, Can't You See?
Sometimes Your Words Just Hypnotize Me..."

Let the Movie Do The Same:
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Instead of opting for a clich├ęd American Gangster like framework in bringing the story of the late Notorious B.I.G. to the screen, the film which came from the heart and soul of the woman who knew the man best and brought him into this world—Ms. Voletta Wallace—makes the bold decision to avoid traditional biopic trappings in simply presenting us with the rapper we saw on MTV.

And in doing so, she gives us the unexpectedly tender and intimate story of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn native Christopher Wallace who we first meet in the form of Christopher Jordan Wallace—the late Wallace’s own son-- who sadly we ascertain in the plethora of extras in this two disc DVD set never met his father, having only been four months old when the twenty-four year old B.I.G. was assassinated in L.A.

Despite the film’s opening ominous opening set on the night he was shot twelve years ago where we hear him eerily confess that he may not be around when asked where he’d be in ten years, we initially become acquainted with “Chrissy-Pooh” as his mother (portrayed by Academy Award nominee Angela Basset) sweetly dubs him when the future star was a shy, soft-spoken ten year old honor student at his Catholic school.

Ridiculed by others for being “too fat, black, and ugly,” we’re quick to realize that perhaps-- inspired by the “stories” his mother was so fond of listening to in country western records—the young Christopher Wallace who we first see turn to rapping after being disappointed by an absent let-down father sublimated his own pain, frustrations, and surroundings into some extraordinarily vivid, ferocious, and intricate rhymes that would later become his creative outlet and vocation.

As a teen, turning to peddling crack on street corners as he explains in the narration that while users became hooked after one hit, he became addicted to money—we uncover the beginning of a double life Wallace leads putting on one face as the incredibly devoted and loving son to his mother and best friend before he’d escape to the roof of his apartment building to dig into the locked box that possessed his beeper, clothing, gold jewelry and other items he needed “to get into character.”

Referring to dealing on the streets as though it was a monotonous factory job, Wallace (now played by the amazingly naturalistic and dead-on newcomer Jamal Woolard) starts to kill time musically, both rapping and engaging in rhyme offs that begin to draw a crowd for the natural charisma, confidence, and incredible gift for improvisation that filters through the gritty raps as he utilizes not country western but the sound of his era in the late ‘80s to tell his own personal stories.

After his mother realizes how her son is spending her days which is intensified even more upon discovering that the teenager is an expectant father, Voletta refuses to stand by and watch, going as far as to offer to simply pray for him in a stunningly brave act of tough love when Wallace lands in prison.

With nothing to do but stare at three walls and the bars keeping him in lock-down, Wallace spends time endlessly writing rhymes out of boredom and by the time he leaves—especially after meeting his baby daughter in a moving scene where Voletta tells him he needs to be a great father—he tries to figure out the best way to support his family.

While the lure of the streets threaten to send him back to jail, a demo tape recorded amongst friends manages to find precisely the right advocate in the intelligent and forward thinking Sean Combs (Derek Luke). And although it’s hard to see Combs as anything but the modern day rap version of the Rat Packer he “plays” as a celebrity icon with his merchandising savvy, the talented Luke (Antwone Fisher, Pieces of April) plays him simply as an innovative producer and PR wizard who promises the man who went from Biggie Smalls to the Notorious B.I.G. that if he stops dealing and devotes his energy to music, he’ll be a millionaire by the age of twenty-one.

Beginning with college shows and steadily building a fan base as the East Coast’s answer to Snoop, Dre, and Tupac—soon with hits like “Party and Bulls**t,” B.I.G. catches on, quickly becoming tight with Juice star and rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) until the dynamic changes following rivalry, misunderstanding, a media-fueled war, and one tragic shooting in New York that finds Tupac nearly killed right by Bad Boy Records helps set in motion the horrific events that followed on both coasts.

It’s about this time that the otherwise solidly written work (penned by journalist and Biggie expert Cheo Hodari Coker and talented scripter Reggie Rock Bythewood) begins to lose momentum from the intimate and fascinating details of Wallace’s life to the stories and legends we already knew before the film began.

Despite this, it’s bolstered by terrific performances—most notably by Woolard who was so perfectly cast that early in the process and after seeing an endless string of hopefuls, Voletta told the casting directors “that’s my son” and routinely solid work by Luke, Mackie, as well as one dynamic turn by Naturi Naughton as the beautiful department store employee that Biggie became romantically involved with before trying to turn her into the “Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop” as Lil’ Kim.

While the events nearing the close of Wallace’s short and tragic life seem rushed especially concerning his complex relationship with Kim and the regal R&B singer Faith Evans he would eventually marry and--moreover-- we finish the film with a number of questions concerning just how everything went down between the “war” with Tupac Shakur and the west coast in comparison to the extremely focused and authentic first two acts, overall it’s a successful work from director George Tillman (Soul Food, Men of Honor).

Heavily benefiting from its attention to detail given the fact that not only Ms. Wallace but Sean Combs and countless others who knew the man best were involved throughout the production to ensure accuracy—this labor of love that chronicled the brief life of a rapper who has sold more than fifteen million albums despite the fact that only one record was released before his death (followed by a posthumous number one smash follow-up album), nonetheless falters in helping to shed any additional light on a man who was cut down before he would meet his son and become a fully-fledged superstar.

However, its stellar production values make it a class act all the way. Shot in a breakneck thirty-eight days entirely on location including filming in the exact apartment building in which Wallace had resided with his mother in Brooklyn, Notorious is augmented by some wonderful and largely hand-held docudrama style cinematography by Factory Girl’s lensman Michael Grady strengthened by the rich production design by Blood Simple’s Jane Musky.

The three who all “collaborated on creating a different color scheme for the different stages of Christopher’s evolution,” craft a visually striking picture filled with the immediacy and urgency of the rapid shoot that only serves as a potent reminder of how fast and short Wallace’s life was before his ’97 death.

While in the end you’re still longing for more resolution about the events or a firmer sense of closure than served up in Notorious--it’s an impressive achievement and accurate reflection of a recent time and place that’s given the deluxe treatment by Fox Searchlight Pictures via its DVD and Blu-ray release of the “Unrated Director’s Cut Collector’s Edition."

The nicely packaged sets include both Tillman’s own edit and the theatrical release, numerous commentary tracks and several featurettes on the evolution of the film from Voletta’s concept to the finished product. Likewise, it takes you behind the scenes for candid recollections from the cast, crew, and those in B.I.G.’s circle as well as bringing us into the casting process and “Biggie Boot Camp” to prep the actors in the daunting act of portraying distinct pop culture icons.

Impressively, it’s a DVD of stunning quality that manages to stand out in the world of Blu-ray with a sharp transfer and concert level sound sure to make you feel like you're back there listening to the man turned posthumous icon whose words "just hypnotized" the hip-hop generation.