In this era of pre-fabricated music idols, people need to be reminded that that true icons are not made. They are born. That is what makes the story of the late Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., such a powerful one to chronicle. His was a life that would evolve into a veritable urban opera. From thug life to global music sensation to tragedy, the stories spun through his rapping touched a collective nerve with generations that continue to feel his presence.
While certain aspects of mainstream media tend to narrow down Wallace’s life to his still-unsolved murder at the age 24, it is fair to say that he represented so much more. That is what makes the release of “Notorious” such an anticipated event.
What elevates the filmed life of Wallace from standard Hollywood biopics of late is that this is the first time the focus is on the hip-hop community. This is not “Walk the Line” or “The Buddy Holly Story” or even “Ray.” At times gritty and challenging, it is also realistic examination of how the American dream continues to evolve with the times.
“Notorious” projects the life of Wallace against a backdrop that has yet to be explored on screen. Director George Tillman, Jr. made it a point to capture the players, sites and sounds that were part of the rap scene in 1990s Brooklyn and New York. It was no easy task to bring hip-hop royalty to life, many of whom continue to play key roles in the world of music. Guided by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker’s detailed script, Tillman’s bid for authenticity is embodied by a cast of seasoned players and newcomers.
The artists surrounding Wallace were young men and women who did not know they would make such an impact on modern culture. They are complex in that they were examples of flawed humanity. However, they also displayed an aura of sex, street and real nerve that can only be copied and imitated by many of today’s hip-hop stars. What fuels “Notorious” is that the cast delivers performances that feel like extensions of the Wallace Experience and not mere impersonation.
Literally plucked from obscurity after an exhaustive search to take on the towering life of the Notorious B.I.G., Jamal Woolard delivers an indelible debut. It is a performance buoyed with equal fervor by Derek Luke, who had the singular task of bringing none other than Sean “Puffy” Combs to life.
Since his award-wining introduction to the screen in 2002 as the lead in Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher,” Luke has remained a steady presence to watch in American film. Born in New Jersey, the 34 year-old’s own affability and earnestness in an interview can also be seen to great effect in such films as “Pieces of April,” “Friday Night Lights” and the recent “Miracle at St. Anna.” That is what makes his vibrant turn as Combs all the more striking to view.
“What’s challenging about playing a real-life person like Puffy,” Luke said, “is that they have their instincts and you have your instincts. So you have to completely pull the plug on your instincts and allow their instincts to come through you.”
Impressed by a demo tape of Wallace, Combs would be the first to unleash the rhyming power of the man who would be known as The Notorious B.I.G. Fired by Uptown Records in 1993, Combs created his own imprint, Bad Boy Records with Wallace as its premier artist. Today, Combs, who is also executive producer of “Notorious,” lives the life of a true mogul, with interests extending way beyond the music industry.
Even if the physical similarities are not that readily apparent, audiences who have seen “Notorious” have reacted favorably to Luke’s performance. The actor himself embraced the swagger and aesthetics of Combs, as well as the raucous interplay shared by rapping with Woolard on-stage. Since completing work on “Notorious,” Luke took his inspiration from Combs a little further. During his interview at the Legacy Recording Studios in New York City, a smiling Luke proudly showed off a sample from his own line of T-shirts.
It remains to be seen whether “Notorious” the film will succeed in its bid for pop culture immortality with critics and audiences alike. Regardless, Luke credits director Tillman for harnessing the many dimensions of these men to both enlighten and entertain audiences.
“What I love about working with George,” he said, “is that what stands out about him is his heart. He really wants to tell moving stories but still be gritty and authentic at the same time.”
Following is Luke’s continued perspective into the making of “Notorious.”
What made Christopher Wallace so unique and important to hip hop and contemporary culture?
There are a lot of parts to Chris Wallace and I only can speak as a fan and not necessarily an historian’s point of view. Just like the character I play, Puff Daddy had many names. Christopher Wallace had three names, too. He was Christopher Wallace. He was Notorious and he was Biggie. That whole anatomy of the man is that he was a guy who grew up from the streets of Brooklyn. It’s not that he had a bad situation but the life that he lived transformed that into something positive. He didn’t allow that to hold him back. Puff Daddy challenged him and said, “Listen, if you want this dream you’re going to have to sacrifice. I’m going to have to give up something. You’re going to have to give up something.” It’s about the American dream. It’s about doing the best where you are at and making that turn into progress.
What makes “Notorious” an entertaining motion picture is the looseness and natural charisma of the ensemble. You all seemed to be really living your roles. What was the most liberating aspect for you in playing Puff Daddy?
I think what was liberating about this part was to be a motivator and an innovator. What I loved about playing Puff Daddy so much is that he brought a new sound that was just a gauge for a neighborhood but it became worldwide. And just to see a man 15 years ago have this sound and know it has generated so much feedback and income. Puff was a trendsetter. You’ve got Kanye, Jay-Z, 50, all these guys are monumental. Puff Daddy had it first. You know what I’m saying? Master P, Puff, these guys did it first. They saw that the world was going to be dancing to one beat. That’s what I loved.
The performance scenes in “Notorious” really capture the swagger and energy associated with Biggie and Puffy. You have a lot to put across with rapping, acting and dancing. What’s it like being a triple threat?
I felt like this is what I signed up for when I went to Hollywood. When I was up there on the stage I just felt like, man, I’ve got to have half a career acting, half a career making an album. No wonder these rappers come on the acting side because there’s no one side of entertainment.
Sean Combs did visit the “Notorious” set a few times to take in some of the performance scenes. Did the original Puff Daddy influence your own interpretation in any way?
Puff Daddy said to me, “Derek, I have confidence in you. There’s a film of yours that I saw and it’s one of my favorites and I saw something in you and I always pictured you to play me.” I had no idea but being a fan of his, I was just like “Man, I am just happy to meet you.” And just that confidence and those words were all I needed. He said, “Hey Derek, you can reach me by text; I’m accessible.” But now, being that he’s a mogul, he’s not necessarily always in one place at one time, but the advice he gave me was, “Derek, when you are on stage with Biggie, there was an interaction.”
They were human and the liberation on my face is the fact that we turned the impossible to possible.
Hip-hop has had a powerful effect on popular culture on so many levels. What makes this music so important?
Hip-hop is such an important voice to our generation. It’s been the Morse code from domestic to international, from inner city to suburban. It’s the sound of “I want to birth something. I want to be heard.” Many times, people in the inner cities, suburban kids, many times they’re written off. They needed to develop a sound where they can relate to each other. And hip-hop is about poetry. Hip-hop is about survival. Hip-hop is about injustice. That’s why I believe it’s been prophetic and successful at the same time.
At times the film depicts both the positives and negatives surrounding the life and times of Christopher Wallace. Do you think “Notorious” ultimately offers a positive message?
So I think in this story, it’s a triumph of Christopher Wallace changing from boy to man. Everyone in life has a past. Between Christopher Wallace and Puff Daddy, there’s a quote in the film that says, “Let’s change the world.” And then the response is, “Well you can’t change the world unless you change yourself.” I think many musicians today, they have change in their income but they’re not really willing to take that power to change the world. The story of Chris Wallace, you acknowledge and see a man that is changing. His growth and his process were changing. Chris was about to take his audience where he was going. Many artists don’t take their audience where they are going. They just keep their audience to what’s selling.
How would you define “Notorious”? What can audiences take away from this viewing experience?
How I would describe “Notorious” is, if you have a dream, if you have a passion, if you have an urge and you’re trying to figure out how to birth it and you’re trying to figure out who you are and how unique you are you will find “Notorious.” I think “Notorious” is inspiring on many different levels where you don’t have to be hindered by your past to be successful and you shouldn’t let your past keep you from going forward. You should just look for that opportunity. I don’t want to give you or the audience what they should take away from it, but it’s about manning up.
Notorious DVD and BD – Out to buy June 22nd and pre-order now from www.play.com. To be in with a chance to win a copy of Notorious email your name, address and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org
About Notorious Blu-ray and DVD
Both DVD and Blu-ray formats have the exciting addition of 6 featurettes and 10 deleted scenes. The Blu-ray disc has something extra special called the ‘Trivia Track’. The trivia track is a special feature that you need to activate whilst watching the film. Once activated, it displays information on whatever track you are listening to during Notorious. Viewers can create their own playlist of their chosen favourite songs and that playlist links to iTunes where you can then actually purchase the music. On top of that, the Blu-ray also has the addition of the ‘Life After Death: Making Notorious’ (45 mins) feature
To buy Notorious B.I.G’s music click here