Notorious doesn’t so much feel like a biopic about Biggie Smalls as much as a film made by his friends and loved ones of who they wanted the rapper to really be. It’s like they knew they had to include his most controversial behavior, specifically his infidelity and outbursts against women, but then spent the rest of the film lionizing and idealizing everything about the rapper, making him more of a martyr than a man.
That’s a common problem with stories about larger-than-life figures who died too soon: that they become legends after death and there’s so much pressure to keep them high on their pedestal that their true story can’t be told without receiving lots of negative feedback from that person’s fans and admirers. But Notorious proudly goes the extra mile into idealizing its subject, making his every triumph and mistake seem far more important and significant than it actually is.
Still, the film succeeds on a number of technical fronts. It looks crisp and clean, it’s seamlessly edited and it sounds amazing. But the biggest draw is Jamal Woolard’s performance as the rapper. Woolard didn’t get the credit he deserved when starring in this movie because he makes us believe so much he is Biggie Smalls that we forget he’s just an actor. It’s hard to applaud a performance when the performance was so solid it made you forget you were even watching one in the first place.
Notorious will be forgotten in the grand scheme of things when compared to Straight Outta Compton, a movie that doesn’t so much as lionize or condemn as much as tell it like it is, or was. Notorious does a better job than Straight Outta Compton at saying “hey, Biggie made mistakes” but its endless effort to make an angel out of Biggie deflated any long-lasting impact this film could have had.