by Mel Valentin
If you heard (or read) that multi-platinum and Grammy Award-winning duo OutKast (André 3000 and Big Boi) had decided to headline a feature film, chances are you’d think it was just another vanity project (e.g., Prince and "Purple Rain"). If you looked up the writer/director of said feature film, Bryan Barber, you’d learn that Barber, a longtime music video director, has directed several OutKast videos, further suggesting that "Idlewild" is a vanity project. It is, but only in part, largely because Barber the writer has put together a straightforward, but nonetheless compelling, period musical, albeit one that relies heavily on OutKast’s output, mixed (the operative word here is “mixed”) with swing, jazz, classic blues, and, of course, hip hop.Idlewild, Georgia, 1930s. Childhood friends, Percival (André 3000/ André Benjamin), a mortician/piano player and Rooster (Big Boi/Antwan Patton), a gambler/singer, spend their nights performing at the “Church,” a raucous speakeasy that features a live band, singers, dancers, and circus performers. Talented but introspective, Percival prefers to stay out of the limelight. Rooster is more than happy with wine (ok, alcohol), women, and performing in front of appreciative audiences. Trouble is, Rooster’s married to Zora (Malinda Williams), and she’s growing tired of his nightlife, even if it brings their family of six, including four children, food on the table during the still ongoing Depression.
"Better than it has any right to be. Seriously."
The Church is owned and operated by Ace (Faizon Love), but Ace owes a monthly cut to Rooster’s sometime benefactor, Spats (Ving Rhames), for providing the Church with illegal alcohol. Spats lieutenant/right-hand man/enforcer, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), is eager to move up, take control, and be his own boss. Before long, The Church changes hands, leaving Rooster as the de facto owner/operator and with a sizeable debt to Trumpy. Percival and Rooster’s fortunes change for the better with the arrival of Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a famous singer. While Rooster holds off Trumpy, Percival and Angel develop a romantic relationship. Percy Senior (Ben Vereen) disapproves of Angel and Percival’s extracurricular activity.
Story wise, Idlewild follows a well-worn path down to the final confrontation between Rooster, Percival, and Trumpy and his men, melodramatic/soap opera plot turns and a (near) tragic ending. Which means Barber isn’t above manipulating audience sympathies by relying heavily on the tropes of the movie musical (e.g., the frustrated, confidence-free artist, the ambitious singer, backstage machinations) combined with the conventions of the period gangster genre (speakeasies, bootlegging, sociopathic characters). Barber isn’t reticent about indulging in periodic outbreaks of graphic violence either (another staple of “realistic” gangster films).
Tropes and conventions aside, moviegoers will see Idlewild for the dance and music numbers, all of them handled energetically by Barber and his collaborators, including OutKast (of course) and his choreographer, Tony Battle (Dreamgirls). Barber is smart enough to let moviegoers see, hear, and feel the music numbers (as opposed to say Baz Luhrmann’s over-edited Moulin Rouge). And with Barber borrowing heavily from OutKast’s output (some of re-orchestrated, but still anachronistic), it’s not hard to imagine some moviegoers feeling like they’re watching a string of music videos together. They are, at least, in part, but with multiple, overlapping storylines threading through the music numbers, the end far more emotionally involving (those tropes again).
Performance wise, the standouts are André Benjamin, who may just have a future as an actor apart from his musical career and Paula Patton, who acquits herself well during the quieter, character-driven moments and the show-stopping numbers. Antwan Patton has a showier role and while he’s always watchable, he seems occasionally lost during the dramatic scenes. Two way-over-the-top performances, Faizon Love, and Jackie Long (as Monk), tend to grate whenever they’re on screen. Thankfully, Love exits stage left early on and Long’s screen time decreases over time. Singer/songwriter Macy Gray has one musical number early on and a more-or-less supporting role from then on.Ultimately, "Idlewild" doesn’t offer much story or character wise (and some of the performances lack subtlety), plus some odd, late-stage (near) necrophilia that’s bound to raise an eyebrow or two and major and minor historical inaccuracies, but once you sit back and get into the flow of the expertly arranged and performed musical numbers, "Idlewild" becomes, in the best tradition of movie musicals, a pleasure to sit through, as much a surprise to this critic as it probably is to most readers of this review.
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originally posted: 08/27/06 19:51:18