New documentary sheds new light on Notorious B.I.G.

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A&E network’s “Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.” uses home videos, archival, never-before-seen footage, and new interviews with those close to the rapper to show the complexity of him.

Notorious B.I.G.: A life examined

A&E’s project is one of several films and documentaries that seek to tell the true story of the rapper’s life. Typically, B.I.G.’s story is intertwined with that of fellow rapper, Tupac Shakur. The two were friends-turned-enemies. Their youth and violent deaths served to link them forever.

Even viewers only loosely familiar with early 1990s hip-hop would question the quality of some biographical films about Notorious B.I.G. The number of attempts to tell the rapper’s life story shows audiences that the truth might be more complex than they thought.

“Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.”

Why is this project different? The approach and the new material are two elements that set the A&E documentary apart from other biopics and documentaries.

According to indiewire.com, “Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.” is “…the first biography doc authorized by his estate.” The late rapper’s estate seems to consist of his mother, Voletta Wallace, and his wife, singer, Faith Evans.

The documentary’s strengths are found in home videos and numerous childhood photos provided by those closest to Notorious B.I.G., also known as, “Biggie Smalls.”

The photos are provided by Wallace, and the home video footage was recorded by one of B.I.G.’s friends. The scenes show a young rapper destined for greatness. Candid interviews, poignant phrases and freestyle rapping comprise most of the footage.

The film shows interviews with Notorious B.I.G. and journalists of various type, but that is still rather standard fare for a documentary. Instead, this one excels at re-telling the subject’s life through words and images provided by his survivors. There are no annoying voiceovers to make erroneous observations. Instead, participants talk about the aspects of B.I.G. with which they are most familiar. His wife, her manager, and two of B.I.G.’s closest friends are filmed in present day, hanging out at a diner the rapper frequented.

Learning that Biggie Smalls never sought out a record deal, and that he was going to sell drugs as long as he could to provide for himself and his young family, was among the shocking revelations of this film. Rap stardom was incidental.

Notorious B.I.G had been rapping since the age of 10 or 11, just messing around in a friend’s basement. By the time he was in his teens, he was an undefeated freestyle champion. One of the battles has been recorded, and it is one of the more memorable home video scenes.

A friend sent a tape of Biggie’s through an industry network that ended at Sean “Diddy” Combs. The rest is hip-hop history.

Biggie’s life and influence

Biggie’s life revolved around taking care of his mother and his children. His father’s departure from his life seemed an annoyance, if that, and nothing more. In one candid interview, a person asks about his father. In an expletive-laced rant, Biggie explains that he never knew the guy, and that neither he, nor his mother need him.

If viewers are only marginally familiar with rap, seeing B.I.G.’s connection to such household names as Jay-Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs, will show Biggie’s influence on other rappers.

The admiration for his well-read approach to rap turns into an evolution of the genre’s language–thanks to B.I.G., it was okay to be thorough with descriptions, to tell disturbing, suspenseful stories, and to use words with more than two syllables.

Biggie Smalls: After the tragedy

After the documentary shows viewers the life of the man they thought they knew, Biggie’s death and the events leading up to it are discussed. His bullet-riddled SUV sits behind police tape in archival footage.

His mother proves the most poignant commenter. With her Jamaican accent and her engaging facial expressions, Wallace re-creates the phone call she received wherein one of his friends was a bit slow telling her what had happened to her son, Christopher. She always called him the name she gave him.

Despite the money and gifts, it seems that Wallace didn’t grasp the extent of Biggie’s fame. It wasn’t until she rode in the funeral procession and marveled at the hordes of grieving fans lining  Brooklyn streets that his mother learned what her son had meant to so many.

Later, his mother recalls listening to his music. She seems to have pored over every word. And, then, she heard the art, and cried. “Like a baby,” Wallace explains in the film.

The life of Notorious B.I.G. is both tragedy and triumph. His murder is yet unsolved 20 years later, but his music lives on.

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