Christopher George Latore Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Biggie Smalls (at least until some kid named Tim threatened to sue him) was 24 years old when he was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997, and would have turned 49 in May of 2021. At this point, the greatest rapper of all time has been a legend for longer than he was ever alive. Wallace is American history. He’s an eternal point of reference. He’s a mural at the intersection of Bedford Ave. and Quincy St. in his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The greatest value to Emmett Malloy’s broadly unenlightening “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell,” a new documentary laced with intimate and never-before-seen camcorder footage shot by Damien “D-Roc” Butler, is how bluntly it reaffirms that Wallace was real, even if he always seemed larger than life.
There he is fretting over his facial hair in a hotel on tour, and discussing the crack game on camera like he’s a talking head in his own life, and — in a slightly more familiar sight — stunting on some poor shrimp who didn’t realize this sidewalk rap battle with the heavy kid from across the block was about to become his own personal Waterloo. It wasn’t all just a dream.
At this point, however, anyone with even a casual awareness of hip-hop knows this story inside and out. It’s become a foundational text for the world we live in today — the kind of thing they should teach in schools even though most kids probably wind up learning about it on their own. Wallace has already been the subject of several documentaries, a semi-decent Hollywood biopic, and even a season of the Slate podcast “Slow Burn.” And while several of those projects have focused on the rapper’s feud with Tupac Shakur and the enduring mystery of their eventual murders, the post-B.I.G. economy has been hotter than Gamestop since the day that “Life After Death” landed in record stores, and “I Got a Story to Tell” can’t really slip around the simple fact that we’ve all heard it before in one form or another.
Which isn’t to deny that Malloy had an unprecedented degree of access here, but rather to stress that it only gets his film so far. If the last two decades of documentary cinema have taught us anything it’s that every family or friend group needs that one guy who’s constantly recording everything on camera for posterity, and Butler was happy to play that part for Biggie’s entourage. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has a deeper trove of amateur Notorious B.I.G. footage, and while a lot of it boils down to Wallace and his crew swagging through hotel lobbies and bringing a party with them wherever they went, the more intimate moments reflect a clear ride-or-die closeness between these men. (Butler was in the car when his best friend got shot, and personally called Voletta Wallace later that morning to tell her that her son was dead.)
“I Got a Story to Tell” pads that footage with oodles of new interviews with major figures and rap history footnotes alike, and there’s never a shred of doubt that Malloy has gone straight to the source. On the other hand, it’s not like P. Diddy has kept his mouth shut about producing Biggie’s work over the last 25 years, and his book jacket-ready soundbites about his late collaborator — e.g. “there are no origins for what rap planet this guy came from” — aren’t exactly scintillating enough to make you wish that Malloy hadn’t just shown us the rest of Butler’s raw footage instead. Although, Diddy’s insistence that he was “always trying to put movies on wax” dovetails nicely with someone’s observation that Diddy and Wallace were like Scorsese and De Niro.
But the undeniability of Malloy’s access becomes something of a double-edged sword when he cuts it into the service of a standard bio-doc story that starts with Wallace’s death, loops back to his childhood, and lays out his improbable rise to immortality as it laps around to his murder again. It’s a tale as old as time, and the film is haunted by the sense that so many of the people in Wallace’s life always knew how it might end. “I Got a Story to Tell” excels through its detail, as Malloy’s interviewees speak in first-hand specifics. Brooklyn isn’t just a borough here, it’s the geography of an entire movement, and Malloy literally maps the distance between where all of these pivotal events happened in a way that makes it easy to appreciate how small Biggie’s world was before he blew it wide open, and even easier to measure how close his superstardom always was to the streets.
Best of all is the interview footage with Voletta Wallace, whose tenacity and pride and enduring sense of loss make her an extraordinary character worthy of her own documentary and then some (Malloy seems to sense as much, at one point jumping back to 1969 to recount Voletta’s first day with Biggie’s absent father, but this film has too much ground to cover to dig far into any of it). Listening to the way she talks about her late son and reflects on his legacy is more illuminating than any of the film’s well-annotated Wikipedia flashpoints and factoids, which have little to offer anyone who can hear the R&B influence in Biggie’s songs for themselves, and even less to anyone who can actually remember the day he died. The only other aspect of the movie that feels so urgent comes from the confessionals the rapper recorded when he sat down with Butler and spoke his mind to the camera. Wallace had a real story to tell, and Malloy’s film serves as a harsh reminder that no one will ever be able to tell it better than he did.
“Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Monday, March 1.