Notorious (2009)

Some men look at a biopic produced by the subject’s mother and ask, “Why?” I look at Notorious and ask, “Why not?” Indeed, what possible outcomes could we, the viewing public, expect from adapting the life of Chris Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.? There was the straight-to-video exploitive trash option, something starring the supporting cast of network crime dramas without the rights to all the hit songs. There was the 8 Mile option, in which some Oscar-hungry director decides it’s time to get in touch with his inner magic negro. And then there was the option that produced Notorious: Wallace’s mother and his old friend Sean “Diddy” Combs producing a hagiography, gassing up the eternal flame for an icon who is largely remembered, in the mainstream media, as a thug.

Notorious is a formulaic music biopic that is kinder to its subject than Walk the Line or Ray were to their subjects. And Chris Wallace committed quite a few more violent crimes than either of the subjects of those films. The filmmakers don’t quite now what to do about this. In early scenes, most of Wallace’s crimes are seen in a montage. We know his friends are drug dealers and thieves, and we see a little drug dealing going on, but only once does it really seem harmful, when Wallace sells crack to a pregnant woman. Later in the film Wallace sees that woman on the street, cleaned up and walking with her son, who’s laughing giddily. We don’t know whether or not the child’s mentally damaged. Wallace just sort of… looks at her. It’s a bit of a cop-out.

We’re assured that the REAL Wallace was a smart, loving man-child who made a series of mistakes in his late teens, including knocking up his girlfriend and going to jail, but that all of this toughened him up and gave him an incredibly powerful flow. We’re also assured that the young Diddy gave B.I.G. a chance when it counted, supporting him and booking gigs even after Diddy lost his job and had to start over. Oh, most importantly, we learn that no one at Bad Boy Records had anything to do with the attack on Tupac Shakur that began the east-west rivarly, or to do with his murder in Las Vegas. The culprits were mysterious guys in army fatigues. We don’t know what happened to them.

If we accept all of this, we’ve got a pretty fun movie going on. The songs and the staging are fantastic, from the first scene in a listening party that blasts “Hypnotize” to B.I.G. and Junior Mafia blowing the roof off at a Howard homecoming with “Party and Bullshit.” As much as Diddy had to with this movie, he allows Derek Luke to play him like a motormouthed goofball who’s constantly dancing, in the office, onstage, after people mock the way he dances. “I’m trying to turn you into the the hip-hop Marilyn Monroe.” Naturi Naughton becomes Lil Kim, slowly transforming from a few hesitant scenes as Wallace’s lover to a bedroom rap she performs for him to a slithering, stomping performer glaring at him from the stage. Sadly, Antonique Smith has less to do as Faith Evans, and isn’t treated as well by the adaptation (she was a songwriter before she broke as a singer). But the acting is far, far better than it could have been, and the cast handle mouthfuls of funny dialogue that only occasionally gets dragged down by cliches. (When the cliches come, they don’t even clang like they could have.)


What Obama says:

The top congressional leaders from both parties gathered at the White House for a working discussion over the shape and size of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan. The meeting was designed to promote bipartisanship.

But Obama showed that in an ideological debate, he’s not averse to using a jab.

Challenged by one Republican senator over the contents of the package, the new president, according to participants, replied: “I won.”

What I hear:

Shiny happy people

Here’s a tiny example of the mood in DC right now. I’m in 7-11 grabbing coffee. I crane my neck, looking for the cardboard holders that keep my hands from being seared by the heat. Two black guys with winter gear and coffee stirrers look at me.

“What you lookin’ for?”

“Just one of those”–I mime a cardboard holder–“things.”

One of the guys puts down his stirrer and walked to the other side of the coffee hutch. He grabs a holder. He hands it to me with a smile.

This is weird. I expect everyone to start snapping and harmonizing by 10 p.m. or so.

Worthwhile initiative

So: I’m just now finishing one of the busier work weeks in months. 20-odd posts at the Economist. 20-odd posts and two articles at the WIndy. (The features in The Guardian and Reason were written a while back.)

What do I do with this site? It’ll focus mostly on music and media and stuff I like, I think. Over the year I want to do a few lists of that same stuff, as if I were an editor at Vanity Fair or something: lists of the X best that or Y most influential this of the decade. The first one I tooled around with last night was “the musicians of the decade.”

My working list:

T-Bone Burnett
Jack White
The Neptunes: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo
The Wainwrights: Loudon, Rufus, and Martha
Kanye West
The Elephant 6 Collective
Death Cab for Cutie

What they all have in common, except for LWIII and T-Bone Burnett is that they did the bulk of their work in this decade. What those two guys have in common with the rest is that they produced the defining music of the decade more than once. Here, for example, are songs that Burnett produced, one per project, between 2000 and 2009.

Joseph Arthur – “In the Sun” (2000)
The Soggy Bottom Boys – “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” (2000)
Sam Phillips – “How to Dream” (2001)
Lauren Hill – “Selah” (2002)
Tony Bennett and KD Lang – “What a Wonderful World” (2002)
Mitch and Mickey – “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (2003)
Alison Krauss – “You Will Be My Ain True Love” (2003)
Sam Phillips – “Reflecting Light” (2004)
Autolux – “Turnstile Blues” (2004)
Cassandra Wilson – “Closer to You” (2006)
T-Bone Burnett – “Earlier Baghdad” (2006)
Brandi Carlisle – “The Story” (2007)
Joe Anderson – “Hey Jude” (2007)
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – “Gone Gone Gone” (2007)
John Mellancamp – “Trouble Land” (2008)
T-Bone Burnett – “Kill Zone” (2008)

He also produced the Walk the Line soundtrack, which I don’t particularly care for, but if you’re willing to consider it, there’s another cultural artifact you can credit him with, along with the album that became the Gilmore Girls soundtrack (one of the decade’s best shows), one of the decade’s instant standards (that would be “In the Sun”), two bizarre experiments of varied quality (the Across the Universe soundtrack and the Plant/Kraus record), and what I think is the best-selling bluegrass album of all time in the O Brother soundtrack.

Obviously I need to spend more time with his stuff, and have the hardest time artistically defending Coldplay, who I saw on the Parachutes tour and was pretty meh’d out by. I’ll be working this from time to time, though.

Hey, remember the 80s?

I bike to work most days and listen to old podcasts; today was the summer episode of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” in which Bob Boilen, Carrie Brownstein, and other assorted Anglos dissected the movies of the 1980s. It was surprisingly glib. Hosts who can pull apart the intricacies of new records and trends with ease (particulary Brownstein calling 2008 “the year of the bearded retreat”) got awfully trite about the 1980s. Synths were boring! Fake drums were icky! “We Built This City” is a pretty bad song, as songs go.

Now–this is their right. They survived the 1980s, and came of age then, and I didn’t. In 20 years perhaps I’ll be unable to appreciate the nuances of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” or “How You Remind Me,” both terrible, terrible songs.

But I didn’t come of age in the 1980s! The decade, for me, has been re-sealed and re-packaged by SPIN, Rolling Stone, VH-1, Mojo, Rhino Records, and other cultural recyclers–I have a colored view of what was good and what wasn’t. I can read the top 10/top 100 lists from every year and see what people were really listening to (ie, Whitney Houston) versus what the critics liked (ie, The Replacements), but it’s too late. I have already been told that Pop Singer X was crap, while College Rock Band Y was mind-blowing, influential, directly responsible for that one song on that one Death Cab record.

My heavily colored view is that… the 1980s were pretty goddamn great. Prog rock mutated into the avant garde of Robert Fripp’s projects and the pop of Phil Collins and Trevor Rabin. Hardcore happened, and happened everywhere. Hip-Hop got awfully close to its peak, as far as the popular stuff goes. (The underground stuff is a different matter, but that’s a cop out.) Most importantly, from the perspective of my record collection, those white college kids who made Nuggets in the 1960s and terrible wank rock in the 1970s made fantastic music in the 1980s–power pop, pop-goth, 60s pastiches, guitar jangle.

Look, kids! Proof!