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What to See – Notorious

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Somebody smarter than I am could probably write a master’s thesis about how the two most popular art forms of the modern age — hip-hop and movies — have yet to produce a major work of art together. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that movies come from the boardroom and hip-hop comes from the streets. Another is that hip-hop’s fluidity — of topic and narrative voice — makes even the possibilities of film seem rigid. It takes Dr. Jekyll a few reels to become Mr. Hyde; Marshall Mathers can change from Eminem to Slim Shady at the drop of a beat.

But until we get a brilliant collaboration between hip-hop and film, we’ll have to settle for good ones. Notorious, the new biopic about the short life and fast times of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, may sketch a familiar star’s-rise-to-fame narrative — we get the clichéd shots of singles rising up the charts and CDs coming off the line at the pressing plant — but it also hits a few unique notes.

Jamal Woolard plays the larger-than-life Wallace — a charming young man whose bulky body belies a quick mind. We see Wallace slinging crack before coming to the attention of an ambitious producer and rapper. He’s told to believe in the possibility of stardom, but his stern mother (Angela Basset, giving life to an underwritten part) isn’t so sure: “What kind of grown-ass man calls himself ‘Puffy’?”

The joke’s on mom: Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) will take her son to the top of the charts — though we already know that Wallace will die at the age of 24. Notorious gets interesting when it depicts the inner workings of hip-hop stardom: At an early B.I.G. show, the audience is faked out with a phony fight, a thrilling bit of stagecraft and showmanship (that also works as a prophecy). B.I.G. transforms his department-store-clerk girlfriend (Naturi Naughton) into the sassy diva Lil’ Kim: “I wanna make you the Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop!”

Notorious doesn’t quite convey how hip-hop felt in the ’90s — it shows the feuds (such as the East Coast-West Coast rap wars) but misses some of the fun. Still, it manages to put a few new scratches and stutters into the beats and breaks of the conventional pop-star movie.

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