Universal // R // August 25, 2006
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted August 24, 2006
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For the first fifteen minutes or so, Idlewild is one of the coolest movies you will see this year. Writer/director Bryan Barber takes what he has learned from making music videos and looks poised to deliver a fresh new updating of movie musicals. Cutting to the rhythm of Outkast's jazzy hip-hop score, and working with a lively voiceover delivered by André Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000), Barber plays with still photos, spot animation, and jump cuts to work his way through a ton of exposition. He toys with the anachronisms of hip hop as they clash with the old-school genre, messing with time signatures, speeding both the audio and video up and down to keep the narrative moving in a way that simulates a DJ scratching on a record. Via this technique, Barber takes us to Idlewild, Georgia, and introduces us to our main characters: Percival and Rooster. We meet them as young children, learn about their families, and see them become grown men. Bobbé J. Thompson as the little version of Rooster is hysterical. The kid tells jokes and tap-dances, and he's an absolute delight. The world the boys live in is made as fun as the duo wants it to be, an extension of their own creative imaginations. For instance, Rooster inherits a flask with his namesake on it, and the carved bird encourages his bad behavior, an animated devil riding in his breast pocket. Percival sees musical notes come alive and live the sort of raucous life he dreams about.

From the fantastic opening montage, Barber takes us straight into our first big number at Church, the speakeasy where grown-up Rooster (Antwan A. Patton, a.k.a. Big Boi) works as a singer. He raps and dances, and the barroom floor fills with jitterbuggers. You see, it's 1935, and the Outkast duo have decided not to make the usual struggling young artists picture, and instead they're making a Prohibition-era gangster musical (even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933). Rooster is the nephew of Idlewild's lead bootlegger (Ving Rhames), and Percival (Andre 3000) has grown up to be Rooster's weird friend, the mortician's son who plays piano and writes songs, but who vomits if put in the spotlight. The Church is a wild place. Eccentric soul singer Macy Gray plays Taffy, a boozing ringleader of the scantily clad club dancers, and Faizon Love plays Ace, the club's skinflint, pipe-chomping owner. I don't remember the last time I've seen such an over-the-top performance. Love goes so far beyond oddball, it's obnoxious. I kept praying for him to get off the screen.

Ironically, he does, and the picture becomes an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Once Ace is taken out of the action, Idlewild sinks like a stone. Barber increasingly loses sight of the fact that he started off making a musical and gets bogged down in what is alleged to be a story. Really, though, it's just a string of clichés. At one point, the movie's villain, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), actually tells someone they shouldn't bring a knife to a gun fight, and how Barber avoided being too embarrassed to write a screenplay that starts with the Shakespeare lines "Life is but a stage, and we merely players" is something I have not yet figured out. The only more boring opening might have been something like, "Webster's dictionary defines Idlewild as...." The worst offense, though--and I don't think I spoil anything by telling you this--is when it's all hitting the fan, and Rooster runs into Cicely Tyson. She gives him a Bible and tells him if he keeps it on him at all times, he will always be safe. You get one guess how that Bible protects him.

It's not that Idlewild needed an entirely original story. A lot of classic musicals are built on extremely thin plots. The problem is that the musical numbers get fewer and farther between the longer the movie goes on. Beyond that, the filmmakers also seem to forget that they can use the song lyrics to advance the action, rather than just being a superfluous sidebar. This could have something to do with the fact that many of the tracks were not written for Idlewild, but were lifted off of Outkast's previous album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Once again, we are provided with an example of what could have been had the filmmakers spent more time thinking about what they were endeavoring to create. There is a wonderful sequence early on where the tune operates as a narrative device, when Percival wakes up and serenades the new day in chorus with a wall of cuckoo clocks. Andre 3000 has an alluring screen presence, and were there more tunes like this one, Idlewild would have been a much different movie. The Percival character gets involved with Angel (the lovely, but somewhat stiff Paula Patton), a famous singer with a secret. They collaborate on what is supposed to be the movie's showstopper, a song that will propel both of them to fame, getting him over his stagefright; only, Outkast commit the cardinal sin of musicals. Their showstopper only stops the show because it puts us to sleep. It's the least interesting cut on the entire soundtrack.

Even so, the musical numbers are still the main reason to see Idlewild. The bulk of the ones that take place inside Church hum with an exciting electricity as rap music is coolly injected into the jazz age. After a couple of missteps with tracks that play out more like music videos than an integrated part of the narrative, we return to the juke joint for the story's official climax, and then move on to Andre 3000's big finale. The closing numbers capture the spirit of old Hollywood's all-star revues, with Dre swanking it up on a large stage, wearing a tux and tails and singing a couple of big-band crooners.

So, Idlewild starts well and ends well, it's just the middle you have to worry about. If you like Outkast or are a fan of musicals and want to see where they can go in the future, these final scenes, along with the opening sequence, make Idlewild worth checking out. Keep in mind, though, that there will be many long lags between them, so you might be better waiting until this is available on DVD rather than getting stuck in a theatre for two hours. It's just such a shame that Bryan Barber and Outkast couldn't see what they had at the start of the picture and kept it up through all of Idlewild. Then we'd really have something.

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