Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell review: a notably incomplete Netflix documentary
It’s not hard to find people with interesting things to say about Christopher Wallace, the late rap titan better known as The Notorious BIG or Biggie Smalls. He has been widely hailed as one of the greatest to ever get behind a microphone, an MC with a cinematic scope that changed the sound of New York City. Grab almost every hip hop head off the street and you will likely get an interesting take on Biggie, his music, and what it means to New York and today’s hip hop culture. And almost anything they have to say is going to be better than Netflix’s new documentary Biggie: I Have a Story to Tell.
Directed by Emmett Malloy, Biggie is a paper-thin account of one of hip-hop’s most mythological figures that traces the broad lines of his tragically short biography. Produced by his mother Voletta Wallace and Sean “P. Diddy ”Combs – whose record label Biggies published the entire catalog – tells Biggie’s story through statements from people who are only interested in portraying him in the brightest light, for reasons that are either obvious, as in Voletta’s case, or perhaps themselves. Serve like a comb.
Combs’ contributions are a big reason I have a story to tell that is so frustrating. The Mughal and former kingmaker is among the most prominent people polled, and he’s working overtime to anchor Biggie as an even more deity than he already is. Combs is a valuable interview because he was there, a key figure in Biggie’s meteoric rise and escalating conflict. But Combs is only interested in referring to Biggie as Zeus from Rap Olympus, a title he says he knew Biggie would hold onto from day one. Combs is less interested in revealing anything personal, and the context he offers should better come from someone who does not benefit from the legacy he is diligently polishing.
Worse still, I have a story to tell that tells its story without even mentioning many of its characters. Nobody talks about Faith Evans, a monumental artist who briefly married Biggie and had a child with him. Suge Knight, Combs ‘west coast counterpart and a key figure in the hip-hop turf war of the’ 90s, is also being ignored. Both are difficult to get out of Biggie’s story – they actually appear in the archival footage the documentary was taken from – but for Malloy’s purposes they might as well not exist.
The only really complicated character Malloy acknowledges in I Gotta Story to Tell is Tupac Shakur, the California rap prodigy whose life was also shortened by violence. The film glosses over the conflict between the two, only briefly mentions it for the last 20 minutes and never really articulates what sparked it. That makes Biggie a story without a proper third act. The failure could be explained as a decision to ignore the violence that hangs over the rapper’s legacy, but ignoring the context in which these men are set comes at a cost lived their lives and made their art.
In its best, fleeting moments, the film comes frustratingly close to illustrating why Biggie was important and what hip-hop meant to his city. Those moments come when members of Biggie’s entourage tell stories of his advent and talk about the neighborhoods they grew up in. During these segments, a map of New York appears on the screen and its old tamped spots are outlined in red. In these red lines, I Got a Story to Tell shows the extent of the entire world of its subjects, spaces that extend over three to eight city blocks. It was dangerous for men like Christopher Wallace and those who idolized him to leave this world, and daring to want more would create problems. This is the allure of every rapper who makes it big, and the longing at the heart of every hip-hop head: to know how small your world is and dare to make it a little bigger.
I Got a Story to Tell is a film without a clear audience. It’s too thin for fans who have heard every beat of this story over and over again, and too tight to give a good introduction to someone less familiar with Biggie’s work and his role in New York hip-hop history. It’s less of a movie to watch than something to play in the background at a party to remind yourself of the good old days. It’s a party with a little guest list because almost everyone you can invite knows these days have never been this good and never been this easy.
Biggie: I have a story to tell that is now streamed on Netflix.