What keeps this film from becoming another lame musical biopic is the good camera work, giving us a hazy, overexposed look, like from a dream, and, well-paced editing, which moves this story nimbly along. Unlike Ray (2004), which has a story from my parents' generation, this is a contemporary figure from mine. I knew all the people and was more familiar with all the events. Yet, I was never at once bored here.
What kept me entertained and enthralled was the star-making performance by new actor Jamal Woolard who plays Christopher Wallace. Like Jamie Foxx, the weight of the film rests on his shoulders and Woolard perfectly carries it. Unlike Foxx, it is Woolard's voice we hear in the various musical numbers.
With parallels to 8 Mile (2002), we follow Wallace from his humble beginnings in a single parent, Brooklyn home to his rocket launch rise to fame as a rap star, and to the events that cut short his life at the age of 24.
Wallace's second and last album, ironically titled "Life After Death," posthumously sold 10 million copies. During his funeral, the number of fans who lined the streets could have amounted to those who turned out for Princess Diana or President Reagan.
Certainly, Wallace, who called himself Biggie Smalls, was popular. This film in many ways is in tribute to him. As a fan, I was glad to see this movie made. It shows how much rap music is a vital form of expression for troubled and frustrated young African-Americans.
Biggie's mom, played by Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do With It and Waiting to Exhale) asks and even yells at her son not to go down the road he's headed. Biggie almost instantly becomes a drug dealer. Yet, even she knows the difficulties a young black man has in that environment with no father figure, no prospects of work, as well as the ease and allure of drug dealing.
Even when Biggie met with music executives, they saw the challenge of marketing him. As one girlfriend described, Biggie was fat, black and ugly. Some might underestimate him, but Biggie was intelligent. On the streets of Bed-Sty, he was very much smart and very much a smart-ass. To know this, all you had to do was listen to his lyrics, all of which were autobiographical.
Whether he knew it or not, Biggie was a poet, and in those moments when you see him step up to the microphone and start to rhyme, you understand why he was the king. The way he weaved words, and did what rappers call flow, was unparalleled at that time in New York. Even standing on the corner of Fulton Street, Biggie had a stage presence that was electromagnetic.
Biggie got people to listen, and Woolard in this performance nicely captures that. He's funny. He's extremely charismatic. His persona was that of a kingpin. It came off as aloof and thuggish, but Biggie was really a sweetheart. Seeing the way he is with women you learn that.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for some sequences of violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.