How Not to Tell a Story

A review of “Notorious B.I.G.: Bigga Than Life”

You’d think it would be easy to tell a true story — all you have to do is say exactly what happened, right? Wrong. Because a story’s not just about the facts. As someone once put it, if you say, “The king died, and the queen died,” you’ve only got facts; but when you say “The king died, and the queen died of grief,” then you have a story.

The telling of the story of Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls) does not do justice to either the man or to the art of story. (And not because it was low-budget, either — that’s hardly unexpected.) Biggie was — indeed is — a rap legend, and a movie in his honour was only a matter of time. But biographical movies fall into a pitfall common to hero-stories: over-idealising, painting the hero all wonderful, without the real things that would identify him as human. I feared — rightly, as it turned out — that “Notorious” would make this mistake.

It follows the basic formula — poor guy with big dreams gets with the wrong crew, and then into trouble; guy decides to turn a new leaf, goes clean and with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, makes it to the big league. Pretty straightforward (apart from, in this case, guy’s tragic death at climax of career). Now I’ve got no beef with formulas. The best storytellers use them: like skeletons, they can be fleshed out in any number of ways. In fact, it’s right at that point — in fleshing out the formula — that the great storytellers shine. And where “Notorious” fails.

That’s because the story shows a considerable amount of uncertainty; it flounders about from one image of Biggie to another, one moment revealing Biggie the street hustler, and the next jumping to Chris the uncertain father. In between, we see him variously as fun-lover, struggling husband and mummy’s boy. We see his friendship with Tupac and how it turns sour (I thought that might have made a good focal point). Biggie has many faces, and suddenly we don’t recognise him anymore. Director, George Tilman, Jr., in trying to say too much, ends up not really saying anything.

But that’s assuming he actually wants to give us all a really good yarn. Because it doesn’t feel that way. The whole thing feels more like a shot at making some good money from the Biggie legacy while it’s still creditworthy. After all, old fans should be only too happy to see their beloved Biggie again to notice the poor art. If it helps, we could indulge ourselves with the couple or so sex scenes. (Never mind that those add about as much to the story as a mid-movie pop-up ad for a porn flick.) Oh, and as if all that flagrant commercialism isn’t bad enough, we’re patronisingly offered a moral to the tale: “No dream is too big!”

I didn’t expect much, but I had dared to hope that Notorious would be somewhat meaningful. It wasn’t.


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