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Review: 'Notorious,' film bio of Biggie Smalls

'Notorious" is an interesting story about a smart Brooklyn teen, Christopher "Biggie" Wallace, who becomes a drug dealer and eventually a superstar rapper. That would be good enough, except the real-life story of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. is far more compelling than this movie, and the slain star's fans all know it.

It's a burden that most biopics have to carry, but the makers of "Notorious" are saddled with the additional weight of having many characters who are not just still around, but still major stars.

Director George Tillman Jr. sidesteps the issue, choosing instead to tell a warmer, fuzzier version of Biggie's tale - complete with movie-of-the-week groaners like "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves," which was delivered twice, and odd choices, from Angela Bassett, whose Jamaican accent fades in and out as she plays Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, and Derek Luke, whose extra-jittery portrayal of Sean "Puffy" Combs is, at times, unintentionally funny.

For those looking for answers about The Notorious B.I.G.'s murder, which is still unsolved more than 11 years later, "Notorious" doesn't offer much help. It does, however, try to explain how the East Coast-West Coast rivalry between Biggie's Bad Boy Records crew and Tupac Shakur's Death Row Records crew quickly spiraled out of control. That section, along with the scenes shot on Brooklyn's street corners, is when the movie feels the most authentic.

What really saves "Notorious" are the performances of rapper Jamal Woolard, who captures some of The Notorious B.I.G.'s playful charm, and newcomer Naturi Naughton, who dazzles early on as the fiery Lil' Kim.

But the true star here is the music, as the power of classics "Party and --" and "Juicy" quickly show how The Notorious B.I.G. became a legend.

Rated R

PLOT Rapper The Notorious B.I.G.'s climb from Brooklyn street corners to stardom

CAST Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke

LENGTH 1:52

PLAYING AT Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE An effective, though sometimes flawed, rags-to-riches tale for the hip-hop generation

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