SFP: "Notorious"

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

BIGGIE SMALLS LIVES IN HIP-HOP BIOPIC

Polls


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Jamal Woolard (right) and Derek Luke as Sean “Puffy” Combs in Notorious.

Jamal Woolard (right) and Derek Luke as Sean “Puffy” Combs in Notorious.
Film Stills TM and © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox

Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1946 romantic thriller of the same name, the just-released Notorious is the story of the hip-hop martyr known variously as the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls and (to his family and some friends) Christopher Wallace. His saga is certainly film-worthy: The Brooklyn-born Wallace became a hip-hop superstar in the mid-'90s, selling millions of records and helping put East Coast rap — and Bad Boy Records boss Sean “Puffy” Combs, who's an executive producer of Notorious and depicted in the film by an actor — on an equal footing with the dominating West Coast artists. Biggie married label-mate Faith Evans and seemed to have everything going for him, but he soon became embroiled in a fierce rivalry with various West Coast rappers and their posses — especially Tupac Shakur — and their public (and recorded) taunts and “disses” escalated to violence. Eventually, Shakur, and then Biggie, were gunned down in their prime, with accusations about who ordered the “hits” (each's camp blamed the other's) lingering to this day. Biggie was just 25 when he was cut down in 1997, and in the years since his legend has only grown — and so have his record sales. His prophetically titled Life After Death, released right after his murder, has sold more than 10 million copies.

Even with Biggie's popularity, it was no slam-dunk that Notorious would even get made. There has never been a major rap/hip-hop biopic (though the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile was inspired by a slice of his life), and it was not clear who the target audience would be: Is it a “black” film, aimed at that demographic, or does it have broader appeal? But according to the film's New York-based supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, Lewis Goldstein, “Once it got into production and they started seeing dailies, I think they realized what a broad film it could be. The film looks amazing; the visual character of this film is astounding. The cinematography [by Michael Grady] and the direction [by George Tillman Jr.] make it look huge. It's quite an accomplishment.”

In the title role, Jamal Woolard has received across the board plaudits for his uncanny physical and temperamental resemblance to Biggie; what's more, he (and the other actors) did their performances live rather than lip-synching to playback.

“One of the music editors, Jamie Lowery, experimented quite a bit with trying to make Jamal's voice sound even more like Biggie, pitching him down a little bit and trying some comparison plug-ins to try and match Biggie's timbre,” Goldstein says. “But what we found is that it ended up slightly hindering Jamal's performances by taking some of the edge off, so we decided not to do that. Jamal is not Biggie, but his performances are still really great. Ninety-nine percent of what's in the movie is these people singing live. Occasionally, we had to go in and ADR a word here and there because it wasn't said correctly or it wasn't sung quite right, but we did that as little as possible. And when we did, we always got the same mic that was used in the live performance so we could match it perfectly.”

In the live music scenes, the actors mostly rapped/sang over a stereo playback track, and production mixer Mathew Price had eight to 10 live mics on the principals, as well as several booms on the audience. Goldstein says, “I got onto the project so late that a lot of the live performances were shot prior to me coming on the job, and Mathew did amazing work, but I would've liked to have had some additional mics on the audience because that's where a lot of the energy for those scenes comes from. It didn't end up being a problem, though, because we figured out a way to get what we wanted from the boom tracks.” The solution for Goldstein was to use bits and pieces of the 12 to 15 available takes and use mics from these different performances. “We did some really tight editing on them to build these audiences and then augment them with some sound effects,” he says. He was hampered somewhat by the amount of playback music in the boom takes, “so I had to go through a lot of EQ and noise reduction to try to get rid of as much of the playback from the boom channel as possible so I'd have these crowds clean.

“Having so many channels of crowd, I could really pan them around the 5.1 field and create a very large audience sound, which was great because on two of the primary songs, when Biggie is at his pinnacle — ‘Warning’ and ‘Juicy’ — there was a tremendous amount of crowd participation where the audience is singing with him, and since I had the boom track [takes], it sounds tremendous. Then we also did a little loop group recording with about 15 people to give even more definition to the crowd.”

Goldstein says that Woolard's performances were so tight and consistent from take to take that “later you could take all these different performances of the same song and cut in and out between them and they'd match incredibly well.” In fact, the only downside to the live performances was “these guys were putting out so hard into these wireless radio mics — and bouncing around the stage — that those recordings are a little crunchy. It's very compressed live singing, verging on distortion. My inclination was to try to clean everything up and smooth things out, but [director] George [Tillman] really didn't want that. He wanted it edgy because that's the way those performances sound in that world. That's another reason he didn't like most of the ADR we tried on the singing, too: It didn't have that same live energy. Everything in this movie was about energy for him.”






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