The North Pole has Santa Claus, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen, and Brooklyn has Biggie Smalls.
Twenty years after his still-unsolved murder by drive-by shooting, we finally have an exhaustive documentary worthy of one of the best-loved, best-selling, and best-talented rappers ever to pick up a mic: Biggie: The Life of the Notorious B.I.G.
Executive produced by his mother Voletta Wallace and his wife Faith Evans, the film includes revealing interviews with Biggie’s earliest collaborators and closest friends, Wallace and Evans themselves, his friend Jay-Z, and of course, the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy.
Through archival footage, new interviews, and of course, Biggie’s music, this three-hour film takes the time to move deliberately through the man’s life, from his birth to a Jamaican immigrant mother in Brooklyn, his fatherless upbringing, the circumstances of his neighborhood, where he was surrounded by drug dealers at the height of the crack epidemic, his early experiments with hip-hop, and the way fame just seemed to find him with very little effort on his part: he goes from a friendly neighborhood drug dealer with loyal customers — because he was by all accounts a super-nice guy, even as a drug dealer — to signed to Puff Daddy’s fledgling Bad Boy label and becoming the all-time king of New York hip-hop. Biggie’s reign, of course, was tragically brief, as he would be killed in a drive-by shooting just after performing at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles.
There are a lot of theories as to exactly why a beloved musician would be murdered at such a young age, and to its credit, Biggie steers clear of speculating on who may have done it, but not without giving the full background on his friendship with Tupac Shakur, which soon soured when Shakur paid Biggie a visit in Brooklyn and was shot and robbed just outside Biggie’s building. Tupac assumed that Biggie had set him up, and considered him a sworn enemy from then on, going so far as to hire Evans for a recording session, and then boast in a verse that he had personally violated her marriage to Biggie (in very direct language). Even then, Biggie appeared at pains not to participate in the one-sided beef, quelling all talk about it when asked in interviews. But when Tupac was shot again — this time fatally — in Las Vegas in 1996, many assumed that Biggie or Puffy had been behind it, so when Biggie suffered a similar fate six months later, it was once again assumed (but never proven) that Suge Knight, Tupac’s manager, had ordered the drive-by as revenge for Tupac. But neither this nor any other case was proven or even brought into court, and Biggie treats it accordingly.
The best documentaries, or the best narrative films for that matter, create a tangible sense of place, and this is one of several areas where Biggie excels. Christopher Wallace was Brooklyn to the bone, and at least half of the interviews in the film are conducted on Brooklyn street corners, on St. James Place (where he grew up), at his favorite diner, and other assorted points of interest. As someone who recently left Brooklyn after almost 14 years living there, the sense of the place is so palpable here that it made me homesick, and not just because I used to pass the prominently featured giant Biggie mural every day.
And, of course, there’s the music: unlike a lot of fly-by-night documentaries, this one has the full use of Biggie’s catalog, including his biggest hits, in some cases with the story behind how they were created and in others with engaging animations of the lyrics appearing onscreen. It is still consistently astonishing, all these years later, how totally effortless this man’s art came to him, and what a colossal influence he remains on his peers and successors.
If you had made a documentary about me that ended when I was 27, it would mostly have been about the many creative ways I found to consume beer in college, my fruitless efforts to find a girlfriend, and my long list of unfulfilled ambitions. By contrast, Ready to Die, Biggie’s first album, was released when he was just 22, he already had a daughter with one woman, and was married to another (singer Faith Evans) who would soon give him a son. Biggie, the man, packed a lot of life into not so many years, and Biggie, the film, does both the man and his career great justice.
Biggie: The Life of the Notorious B.I.G. premieres tonight at 8pm ET on A&E and will be available on-demand shortly after.