Sean “Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy” Combs lays out the mission statement for this new documentary about The Notorious B.I.G. right before the opening credits.
“This story doesn’t have to have a tragic ending.”
What follows in “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell,” is an adoring, seriously upbeat portrait of New York rap icon Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, a film built around his literal family — his widow, mother and Jamaican grandmother — and the “Junior Mafia” crew of rappers, hype men and friends from his entourage.
The guy was murdered at 24 in Los Angeles in a crime that remains unsolved 24 years later. But that tale is for another movie, earlier docs (starting with “Biggie & Tupac”) and documentaries to come.
If it accomplishes nothing else, and it does, Emmett Malloy’s new film tears Biggie away from Tupac Shakur, his friend and later hip hop rival and fellow unsolved murder victim. In separating them and their shared fates, that infamous “feud” is given the play it probably deserves — all “drama” on gangsta-wannabe Tupac’s side.
Biggie? He was selling drugs on street corners, as he was quick to remind folks, right around the time Tupac was finishing the ballet classes his momma put him in.
Malloy, who directed “Tribes of Palos Verdes” and various music videos and music docs for The White Stripes, Jack Johnson, etc., builds the film around the hours of home movies, studio recordings and onstage material recorded by Wallace’s lifelong friend and videographer D Roc. And he interviews D Roc, Wallace’s mother, grandmother and widow, P. Diddy and a lot of people who were a part of Biggie’s orbit growing up in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, many of whom stuck with him as he became famous.
Diddy is here for the hype, his greatest discovery, “the greatest rapper of all time, and I was saying that when he was alive.”
D Roc and many of the others are here to separate the man from the image. Christopher, which is what his Jamaican-born school-teacher mother Voletta called him all his life, “was a conscious person. He knew what was going on” and kept friends and family close, D Roc says. But “Notorious B.I.G.? He didn’t give a f–k.”
That isn’t a knock, just a way of separating the verbally dexterous born “entrepreneur” from the image he conjured up. As a teen, Christopher sold crack on the street corners of his neighborhood, Bed Stuy and environs. And he oversold that image later. His rap career took off so young that his street-selling days were more days than years.
Because as grainy home videos make obvious, his Jamaican background and connection to musicians like his Uncle Dave Wallace back in Jamaica (which Christopher visited several times) and jazz sax player Donald Harrison (a neighbor) gave him a musical edge when it came to making his mark rhyming.
A Catholic schoolboy exposed to Jamaican slang and rhythms, “an R & B writer and singer who became a rapper,” as Diddy puts it, a shy kid who expressed himself in rhyming rap battles before becoming “The King of New York,” he was soaring in popularity right up to the moment he was gunned down in traffic, right at his peak.
The film’s focus on the positive leaves little room for getting at anything truly negative. And when you die at 24, there’s truthfully not a lot of that to “report.” The “feud” and the list of his potential murderers, many of whom carried alleged beefs with Biggie, is where that material lies and it’s mostly missing.
The most fascinating content here is hearing his mother’s ambitions — a desire to come to America and “get rich”– and Wallace’s myriad musical influences, not just his pals and peers but those father figure mentors who entered his life.
Being just a gloss on his life, we don’t pick up on the appetites and genetics that made him 6’2″ and 375 pounds. No “father” is so much as mentioned.
But his friends and family remind us how much he was loved by those closest to him, and competing New York TV helicopter crews filming his funeral cortege back in March of 1997, streets filled with cheering-not-weeping fans, show us emphatically that they were not alone.
MPA Rating: R, drug content, profanity
Cast: Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, Voletta Wallace, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, D Roc, Faith Evans, Matty C., Donald Harrison, Lil Cease
Credits: Directed by Emmett Malloy, script by Sam Sweet. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:37