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It’s hard to do a convincing warts-and-all portrait when your subject built a livelihood celebrating their warts and even harder when you’re determined to treat those warts as pimples.
That’s the challenge facing director Emmett Malloy with the new Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell. This latest attempt to do a revealing, yet authorized depiction of the life of Christopher Wallace — b.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., b.k.a. Biggie Smalls, b.k.a. Biggie, b.k.a. The Black Frank White, b.k.a. Big Poppa — suffers simply, but not fatally, from being unable to either mythologize or humanize the man better than he mythologized and humanized himself.
AIR DATE Mar 01, 2021
Christopher Wallace did everything big. He lived big, loved big and, to hear him tell it, thugged big. But Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is not an especially big documentary. At only 98 minutes, in a media moment when the possibilities of streaming television have caused everybody to pad and inflate their stories, this is a documentary likely to leave fans wanting more — more music, more stories, more revelations. That is, in its own way, appropriately representative of Biggie’s story.
Biggie was killed when he was 24. At the time, he’d released all of one album, the hip hop pantheon entry Ready to Die. Life After Death, occasionally ill-formed but still damn good on its own terms, was released two weeks after his death. The number of documentaries, podcasts, movies and TV projects about him have easily exceeded his own creative volume at this point and, like 2009’s narrative feature Notorious, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell has the blessing and direct involvement of the Christopher Wallace estate. The members of the Biggie Industrial Complex serving as producers here include Sean Combs, Mark Pitts, Wayne Barrow, Biggie’s mom Voletta Wallace and more.
Malloy’s documentary is shorter than Notorious and has a somewhat different focus. The doc’s tagline is “Every Legend Has an Origin Story” and that’s primarily where the story is centered, from Voletta’s immigration from Jamaica to the young Christopher’s transition from quiet Catholic school kid to street-wise hustler to the gestation of Ready to Die.
There’s a subset of viewers who care most about Biggie through his rivalry and friendship with Tupac Shakur and you don’t even hear Tupac’s name until well over an hour into I Got a Story to Tell. But since Nick Broomfield’s Biggie & Tupac already exists, why would you want this to be that? There’s also a subset of viewers who care most about Biggie through the mystery surrounding his murder and this documentary doesn’t even hint at that particular puzzle. But since USA’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. already exists, why would you want this to be that?
Still, everything this documentary is, I wanted it to be more of.
I wanted more time in Jamaica, where Malloy is able to interview Gwendolyn, Biggie’s 96-year-old grandmother, as well as his uncle Dave, credited as being a key musical influence in ways that the documentary doesn’t really illustrate. Although Voletta has always been very clear that her perspective on her son has a certain myopia — she insists she didn’t know about his crack dealing and laughs about finding his music too profane — she remains an ever-engaging figure.
I wouldn’t have minded a bit more candor from Biggie’s friends from the streets. It isn’t that they’re whitewashing the illegal activities they engaged in, but the stories are framed in a singularly nebulous way. It’s similar to how everybody in FX’s Hip Hop Uncovered is happy to talk about certain crimes, but not others. It’s hard to exactly call I Got a Story to Tell hagiography, but it’s built around a too-clean arc in which Biggie turned from crime to music, an arc that requires the documentary to completely ignore more than a few high-profile arrests, incidents and even incarcerations after his “transformation” took place.
I wanted more from Donald Harrison, a gigging musician who takes some credit for introducing a young Christopher to jazz and, in one of my favorite moments of the documentary, explains how Max Roach’s bebop drumming informed Biggie’s syncopated flow.
I badly wanted more from Biggie’s earliest musical collaborators, including 50 Grand and Easy Mo Bee, who each give a couple tantalizing details on the development of iconic songs like “Party & Bullshit” and “Juicy.” I’d even have taken more from Combs, who surely has milked Biggie’s legacy for as long as possible, but offers some of my favorite details here when he explains his “cinematic” vision for music production.
It’s worth noting that Malloy and his group of cinematographers have a cinematic vision of their own here, whether staging interviews in a cavernous abandoned church or theater spaces or the lush, colorful moments filmed in Jamaica. The film does well establishing the geography of Biggie’s Brooklyn, with the distinctions between the Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods serving as something that, like so much here, probably could have benefitted from even more context.
The documentary’s best cinematographer isn’t even credited as such. Damian “D Roc” Butler was an unofficial videographer of Biggie’s early development and his first tours, and I would have happily watched a documentary composed only of footage D Roc captured in hotel rooms or from the wings of various concert venues. It’s almost all tremendous, complementing the ample studio recordings that being “authorized” helps you access and reminding you that even when he was just a kid freestyling on brownstone stoops, Biggie was special.
There’s enough good, previously unseen stuff in Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell to make it an easy recommendation, though seeing and hearing stuff you haven’t seen before isn’t the same as learning a lot of things you didn’t know before. It’s captivating because Biggie was captivating, without being enlightening. But as Biggie put it, “If you don’t know, now you know.”
Premieres Monday, March 1, on Netflix.
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