While the documentary about legendary rapper Biggie Smalls is somewhat lacking, the occasional insider’s look at his all-too-short life makes it worthwhile.
On May 21st 1972, Christopher Wallace (aka the Notorious B.I.G/Biggie Smalls) was born in Brooklyn, New York. By the age of 23 he’d released his first album, Ready to Die, which was widely acclaimed and won ‘Album of the Year’ at The Source Hip-Hop Awards. By 24, he was dead, killed by drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Interviewing the people who knew him and using unseen behind-the-scenes footage shot by close friend Damien “D-Roc” Butler, director Emmett Malloy tries to tell that story. Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell. It tells a humanizing tale of the legend, but feels rote, and fails to represent the weight of his legacy.
The approach this documentary takes is mostly by-the-numbers. For most of it we follow Biggie throughout his life, from his school days to his successes, to his death. This story is largely told by his mother, his childhood friends/posse (including the Junior M.A.F.I.A) and P. Diddy, the man who signed him . Thanks to the interviews with his mother, you get a real insight into what Biggie meant to the people around him, as well as some sweet moments they had with him.
However, the interviews that move outside of his family and close friends feel a little flat. The most frustrating example of this is Diddy. His time on screen is devoted to platitudes about Biggie being the greatest rapper of all time, and parroting the popular narratives that most people watching would already know. Malloy never manages to draw anything more vulnerable or insightful from him, in spite of Diddy being one of the most important figures in hip-hop history. In general, it doesn’t feel like anyone is being pushed or asked difficult questions which would make them move beyond the simple and easy.
Where the documentary does meaningfully separate itself from just being another retelling of his story, is in its use of the home videos from D-Roc. We see Biggie shaving to maintain a youthful appearance, and messing around with his friends in a hotel room. We’re also shown the whole Junior M.A.F.I.A gang sweating and dousing each other with water on a scalding hot tour bus, and it feels deeply humanizing. If anything, I wanted more of these videos, because that’s when you see who Biggie was as a person. The other things that these videos do is highlight just how young he was. It really shows how when you peel away the performance, he was an extremely talented guy just out of his teens who wanted to look after his mom and his friends.
It tells a humanizing tale of the legend, but feels rote, and fails to represent the weight of his legacy.
Alongside this human picture there is also some interesting work tracing his musical origins. Noted are his interest in country music (which he got from his mother), and the wealth of genres that he would hear when he traveled to Jamaica. This analysis gives a great insight into his musical brilliance, which is demonstrated by laying his lyrics over jazz drumming. Malloy presents you with Biggie’s earlier tracks, illustrating his development as an artist. The lyrics also appear on the screen in stylized font, which hammers home the masterful poetry of his work. When we finally get to the fully formed Notorious B.I.G on stage, the power of his rhythm and bars are unmatchable. We don’t spend enough time there though — it’s all snippets, and we never get to be fully immersed in his performance.
Where this documentary really falters is in its presentation of Biggie’s impact and legacy. We’re constantly told by various people that he was impactful and unprecedented, and that he saved East Coast hip-hop, but we never get to see it. All we see are excited crowds screaming occasionally, and the massive turnout for his funeral. There’s also never a real interrogation of who he impacted and why, beyond a throwaway line or two about how he wasn’t flashy like Harlem rappers. There are reasons why a man whose music career lasted five years has had such a lasting impact, more than two decades after his death. What is especially absent is any sort of focus on why he was impactful for Black people specifically. There’s mentions of the difficulties of growing up Black in New York but that’s never connected to how people continue to feel about his music.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell isn’t particularly interested in challenging the dominant narratives around the Notorious B.I.G, or really exploring much in-depth. However, the music, the criminally underused home videos and the interviews with his mother are just about enough to make this worth it. This film is absolutely a shallow puff piece, but it’s a watchable one.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is now available on Netflix.