A distorted view of one of Hip-Hop's greatest artists.
The Notorious B.I.G. most likely needs no introduction, but just in case – Christopher Wallace, AKA Biggie Smalls, was a hip-hop artist from New York City who rose to fame in the early to mid 1990s, before his untimely death on March 9th 1997 at the extremely young age of 24. Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell is a biographical documentary that focuses primarily on Biggie’s family history, his experiences growing up in 1980s New York as crack became a huge issue (particularly in lower income areas) and his (reasonably brief) music career.
Biggie himself is a brilliant focal point – he is a charismatic and mysterious man who lived a shockingly full life in his 24 years. However, one can’t help but feel the documentary itself fails to give Biggie the stage he thoroughly deserves. Being a Netflix documentary, it doesn’t avoid some expected pitfalls – it relies on manipulative jolts in the sound design (to an almost parodic extent) and it tries to dig up convoluted drama that seems downright unnecessary. These same problems stain the majority of Netflix’s documentary catalogue, so it doesn’t harm the film as much because they were to be expected but these techniques leave a sour note either way. Bringing the focus back to Biggie, the documentary does reveal much about him – particularly about his family history and his childhood – that can’t be found in other documentaries that talk about him (such as Biggie & Tupac and Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution), and this makes a somewhat poorly produced documentary far more watchable.
Of course, for those with an interest in Biggie as a musician or as a person, the documentary is revealing and intimate thanks to the heavy use of interviewees who knew him personally. Biggie’s mother in particular reveals a lot of details that are telling of his personality, and her discussion of his funeral is especially touching. For those who aren’t interested in the topics, it’s easy to imagine that this would be an impossible chore to sit through, but at the very least it is accompanied by an excellent soundtrack containing a selection of the best hip-hop music from the 80s and 90s by Biggie and many others. It’s a bit of a shame that the documentary does not investigate Biggie’s lyrics far beyond them being reflections of his personal reality, and by extension the realities of 1980s New York, as it feels like there’s much more to delve into. Instead the documentary leans more into Biggie’s criminal life as a drug dealer in his teens rather than the positive life he led as a musician and beyond after acclimatising fame. It’s far more focused on the more blunt ‘Gimme the Loot’ Biggie than the one that we most know and love from the searingly beautiful ‘Juicy’ and ‘Hypnotize’, which is most likely another Netflix trapping.
Nonetheless, Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell is certainly not a waste of time for fans of Biggie and his music, but it could be much, much better. For such a charismatic and loaded topic, it feels like the ball has been dropped somewhat, but the film still does a brilliant job in bringing out the emotions of B.I.G.’s music. There is wasted potential, but the final product is better than most documentaries focused on hip-hop artists, who remain poorly represented but the cinematic medium as a whole. Considering just how brilliant and impactful of a musician Biggie was, it seems a shame that the documentary would pre-occupy itself so heavily with his brief criminal past and so little with the music.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell (2021) was directed by Emmett Malloy and is available to stream on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below: