I’m not proud in the least of being late to the game with Biggie. Until last week, when I listened to Ready to Die and Life After Death back to back, the only things I knew about Christopher Wallace was that he was a huge 90s rapper, he was murdered in a still-unsolved drive-by, and he made “Hypnotize,” one of the hardest songs ever.
My level of familiarity with Christopher Wallace made me the definitive audience, in a way, for the new movie Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, out on Netflix today. It’s pretty standard as far as expository documentaries go, employing talking-head interviews with the people closest to Biggie – some previously outspoken about their relations with Wallace, others not.
But I Got a Story to Tell works best – as I’m discovering more and more with documentaries about one specific individual or group – when it showcases Biggie Smalls himself: be it in his archival interviews, in the home footage shot by Damien “D-Roc” Butler, or when blasting clips from his brilliant songs. Indeed, I Got a Story to Tell treads on well-worn ground, but to Biggie neophytes, it certainly doesn’t get in the way of understanding who the King was.
The Netflix movie reads like a typical biographic documentary, starting from Wallace’s upbringing by a single mother in 1980s Brooklyn. I Got a Story to Tell follows his quick maturity via integration into his love and devotion to rap, meteoric rise to fame, and shocking death. The film adds personal perspective from his friends during his childhood and teenage years, his musical collaborators, and his family – most prolifically, his mother Voletta Wallace.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell: New Netflix Documentary
One of the more effective colors detailing I Got a Story to Tell is Wallace’s strikingly deft ability to balance his own individualistic and collaborative attitudes. He’s depicted as a once-in-a-generation talent, a keen observer and tough storyteller on the mic from the start. In one scene, a short kid foolhardily shoves his way into a battle rap against the teenaged Wallace, and anyone who’s heard a Biggie song knows the boy’s about to get pulverized. But B.I.G. latched onto the right production people, gloriously shouted out his Brooklyn roots, and methodically kept those he loved, most of all his mother, at varying levels of distance from what he was doing.
Not only was it his great strength to manage intimacy and extraversion, but he was measuredly shared this self-reflection within his music. Although I’m more partial to cuts from Life After Death, a large amount of the doc is devoted to how monumental Ready to Die was. On the record, Biggie divulged the scope of his intensely personal environment (helpfully explained in I Got a Story to Tell by geographic diagrams) in his most hardened songs – “Gimme the Loot”, “Respect” – while pulling more fun-loving, bombastic energy in the album’s bigger singles – “Big Poppa”, “Juicy”. You wouldn’t know it from the documentary, but Biggie’s songs are prophetic and hardcore as frequently as they are promiscuous and sexually liberal. Look up the lyrics to the movie’s titular song.
A quite moving moment comes from his own explanation of his albums’ titles. A synecdoche for the gangster rap genre as a whole, Wallace points to how Ready to Die and Life After Death represent not a desire to die, nor suicidal thoughts, but that the predicted lack of worries in the afterlife might make it more appealing than weathering the hardships of life on Earth. Retrospectively, the sentiment reads as tragically illuminating – he knew precisely what and how he was doing, thoroughly aware of the meaning every word and song of his carried.
Like that moment in I Got a Story to Tell, the archival footage exemplifies the film’s better intentions throughout. Seeing Wallace act like a normal young man behind the scenes – like when he shaves his neck and dances with friends – points to the kind of soul he was, as well as reinforcing how tragic it was when he, a father and a son at age 24 (age 24!), was murdered in California.
The documentary gives some (not enough) time to his mom, linking her emotional history to Biggie’s rather shallowly. But viewers came for a doc on Wallace, and Biggie’s its big focus by far. The key moments of his heavily examined life are all highlighted and often filtered through the fascinating lenses of his friends and fellow drug dealers. I Got a Story to Tell lands as an unobtrusive supplement to (and often, plain plug for) his albums and lyrics – in many ways, it’s a hat on a hat for what Biggie Smalls already masterfully laid out for us.