The most important word in the title of Netflix’s latest documentary, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, is “I.”
Fans of the Notorious B.I.G., who sold over 30 million albums and was inducted last year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, have already heard the story most filmmakers want to tell about the revolutionary rapper: mainly, his deadly beef with Tupac Shakur.
That story has been aptly cinematically covered by now. It was the subject of the 2002 documentary Biggie & Tupac as well as the basis for City of Lies, the floptastic 2018 detective thriller inexplicably starring Johnny Depp. Even in Notorious, the hagiographic feature from 2009, a lot of screen time is devoted to the dynamic between the pair—their friendship, their falling out, the media stoking tensions between them, and of course, the tragic outcome.
In I Got a Story to Tell, however, the sum total of the most consequential rivalry in hip-hop history is relegated to the final 10 minutes. What director Emmett Malloy does with the rest of the run time is pass the mic to Christopher Wallace (in home-video footage and archival interviews), along with those who knew him best, to get the clearest portrait yet of the real person shrouded beneath one of the most legendary musical personas of the last 30 years.
“I’m like the eyes of the world because I done did all the bullshit, but you gotta learn from your mistakes,” Wallace says in one unearthed interview. “Now it’s my time to speak on it. Not necessarily about making my story, like, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘You should do this.’ But just making my story, like: ‘This is how it is.'”
If the film didn’t already have an ideal title—”I Got a Story to Tell” is the name of a memorable song from Biggie’s second album—”This Is How It Is” would be a worthy replacement. This does seem, definitively, how it must have been.
Right away, it’s clear that this documentary will be more personal than its many predecessors. The first footage we glimpse is from a home-video recording of Wallace happily shaving his chin in a hotel room before a gig. The footage comes courtesy of Wallace’s close friend Damion “D-Roc” Butler, who has a cache of videos from within the eye of the hurricane as Wallace goes from a hustling teenager in Brooklyn to the most famous rapper on the planet.
If all the raw material of Wallace in unguarded moments throughout his life adds texture to the enshrined image of a larger-than-life rapper, the interviews are where the film gets granular. Voletta Wallace, the Notorious M.O.M., talks about bringing Christopher to her native Jamaica as a child, where he soaked up all sorts of musical influences with his uncle Dave, a reggae singer. Donald Harrison, a jazz artist who moved to the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn in the ’80s to be part of the same art scene as Spike Lee, talks about seeing the potential in his young neighbor, the future rapper, and helping to nourish it. These interviews set the stage for when that potential started to take hold, as a 14-year-old Wallace, then going by MC Cwest, recorded his first track, which we hear a snippet of. (It’s a Slick Rick rip-off, over a sample of Toto’s “Africa,” interestingly anticipating Puff Daddy’s later reliance on classic records as backing beats for songs by B.I.G. and others.)
The film neither shies away from nor glorifies Wallace’s descent into crack dealing, a part of his life that persisted through to the making of his first album, nor does it dwell on any sordid details around his relationships with the mother of his child, Jan Jackson, his wife, singer Faith Evans, and his protégé Lil Kim. Director Mallory doesn’t whitewash the blemishes away so much as he emphasizes the most compelling elements of a unique talent and the extraordinary circumstances that helped it reach the entire world.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell isn’t a forensic accounting of the death of the Notorious B.I.G.; it’s a celebration of the life of Christopher Wallace.