Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G., would have turned 49 years old this year, meaning that soon the late rapper will have been dead for longer than he was actually alive. Biggie’s still-unsolved murder at 24 years old remains one of the great tragedies of American music, an open wound for hip-hop that will never fully heal. His legacy is incalculably enormous, while his death has allowed him to become a powerful and endlessly malleable imaginative object in the firmament of modern pop.
Recent years have seen a growing classic-rock-ification of hip-hop history, a myth-managing industrial complex designed to goose merch sales, streams, box-office receipts, and catalog downloads. Biggie, who’s been the subject of a biopic, multiple documentaries, a small library of books, and at least one excellent podcast, entered this pantheon earlier than most. (Probably the only figure with a comparable industry surrounding him is the man with whom Biggie will forever be linked, Tupac Shakur.) The latest entry into this corpus is Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, a competent if frustratingly thin documentary executive produced by Sean Combs and Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, that premieres on Netflix on March 1.
I Got a Story to Tell’s claim to freshness is a trove of never-before-seen camcorder footage, shot by Biggie confidant Damion Butler while the rapper was on tour in 1995. The footage is charming if not particularly revelatory, full of exactly the sort of material you might expect an excited young person to record for posterity in such a situation: goofing around on buses and in hotel rooms, thrilling if shaky footage of live shows, lots and lots of blunts.
A common pitfall of documentaries about incredibly famous people is that they take the substance of their subject’s significance for granted; to paraphrase one of Biggie’s commandments, they’re high on their own supply. I Got a Story to Tell features a lot of men—as is so often the case with these kinds of movies, it’s mostly men—emphatically asserting the supremacy of Biggie’s music without actually saying all that much about it. For an uninitiated viewer who just wants to learn who Biggie was and what made him great, I Got a Story to Tell doesn’t offer all that much, with a few exceptions. Jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, a neighbor of Biggie’s, recalls listening to bebop records with the young Chris Wallace, and suggests that his vocal style may have been influenced by drummers like Max Roach. Voletta Wallace is a charming screen presence as always, and the film devotes extensive time to childhood summers spent in her native Jamaica and the impact the island had on the young Christopher’s musical development.
But far too much of the film just feels like a rehash, with Diddy, Lil’ Cease, and other mainstays of Biggieography telling the usual stories in the usual awed tones. I Got a Story to Tell dutifully hits the familiar beats: the legendary battle on Bedford Avenue, the “Unsigned Hype” write-up in The Source, the dizzying success of Bad Boy and escalating Death Row beef, and of course the early morning hours of March 9, 1997, when his life was ended at a Los Angeles stoplight. There are some prominent omissions as well, most notably that of Lil’ Kim, whose absence contrasts starkly with the ample screen time afforded to her fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. associates Cease and Chico Del Vec.
Most puzzling is the bizarre amount of time that the film spends on Biggie’s relatively brief career as a drug dealer in Bed-Stuy. To say this is a well-trod topic is an understatement: Biggie brought it up in nearly every song he ever recorded. But like any great crime writer, Biggie’s interest in drug dealing wasn’t in the act itself but rather the metaphorical power it provided, a narrative terrain through which to explore power, greed, injustice, violence, sex, and pretty much everything else. Drug dealing is interesting in Biggie’s music because Biggie was a genius, not because dealing drugs is inherently interesting. I Got a Story to Tell is a documentary about a musician that spends much of its running time on a day job that its protagonist held before he became a full-time musician. It’s a baffling decision that also comes off as immensely dated, a dusty relic of the authenticity-mad 1990s, when there was a belief that audiences needed to know that rappers were actually living the lives they rapped about.
Throughout Biggie hagiography there’s always been a part of him that’s remained elusive and seemingly unknowable. Tupac Shakur was an electrifying and magnetic celebrity with a personal story that was almost literary in its complexity; Tupac characterology has always written itself, and in many cases probably a bit too easily. Biggie, on the other hand, for all his otherworldly musical charisma, never seemed entirely at ease in the spotlight. He was shy by his own admission, and in interviews often came off as guarded. All of this is, of course, entirely expected of a person in his early 20s who becomes enormously famous essentially overnight. One of the most remarkable aspects of Biggie’s musical legacy is that a rapper who made the sort of music he did—hardcore rap steeped in nightmare and dark comedy, drawing from influences ranging from Big Daddy Kane to the Geto Boys to Kool G Rap—wasn’t supposed to become a massive pop star. That context is crucial and fascinating, and largely goes unexplored here.
In some ways I Got a Story to Tell reminded me of another recent Netflix throwback doc, the 10-part Michael Jordan retrospective The Last Dance, which similarly used the lure of previously unseen footage to shore up the conventional wisdom of its subject as the GOAT. Neither film demands anything more of its viewers than their time and casual attention, and both provide the comfort of telling us the stories we’ve always been told, just the way we like them. If you’re a Biggie die-hard (I’m one), nothing in I Got a Story to Tell will trouble your conviction that everything you already thought you knew about Biggie Smalls is right.
In other words, it’s fan service, a project that sees “what is this movie for” and “who is this movie for” as effectively the same question. My personal favorite image of Biggie Smalls is one of the very last photos ever taken of him, at a shoot with the photographer Barron Claiborne. The session produced the iconic “King of New York” image of Biggie ice-grilling the camera with an off-kilter crown off his head, but my preferred shot is an outtake in which a goofy Chris Wallace flashes an ebullient grin the likes of which the public rarely saw. It’s an incredible and totally disarming photo, full of joy and mischief and life, and when it appeared onscreen near the end of I Got a Story to Tell, it hit me with unexpected force. That’s the Biggie I want to know, and maybe someday someone will find him.