Given that the
Atlanta duo OutKast is one of the most creative forces hip-hop has
witnessed, it's ironic that the biggest problem with its first
feature film is that the music is so mediocre -- a serious failure
when you're trying to revive the movie musical.
Eight years in the
making as a collaboration between the multiplatinum rappers and
their college buddy, Bryan Barber (who directed several of the
group's videos as well as clips for Destiny's Child, Kelly Clarkson
and Christina Aguilera), "Idlewild" follows two musicians in
small-town in Georgia in the 1930s: singer, club owner, mack daddy
and errant family man Rooster (Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) and his
childhood friend, Percival (Patton's OutKast partner, Andre "Andre
3000" Benjamin), a mortician by day and shy piano player by night.
promoting the film -- which was accompanied by a soundtrack with the
same name released on Tuesday and marketed as the eagerly-awaited
follow-up to the duo's 2003 smash "Speakerboxxx"/"The Love Below" --
Patton and Benjamin said they wanted to make a modern musical that
was more "Purple Rain" than "Singin' in the Rain." But "Idlewild"
isn't a romanticized autobiography and showcase for live
performances, like Prince's 1984 movie, any more than it's a
traditional old-school musical like the 1952 Gene Kelly classic --
though the characters do spontaneously break into song at times, as
when Percival inexplicably serenades a body on the mortuary slab.
OutKast did get
one thing right with that rainy comparison, though: The movie is
often a soggy mess.
To be sure,
there are good things about "Idlewild." Unfailingly charismatic,
Patton and Benjamin both have considerable potential as stars, and
they're ably supported by a top-notch cast that includes Terrence
Howard ("Crash," "Hustle & Flow"), Ving Rhames ("Pulp Fiction,"
"Mission: Impossible"), Faizon Love ("Elf," "Friday") and "Roots"
veterans Ben Vereen (as Percival's dad) and Cicely Tyson (in an
all-too-brief cameo as a Dust Bowl refugee). Proudly freaky R&B
singer Macy Gray also does her best as a slutty vamp, and newcomer
Paula Patton (no relation to Antwan) makes a memorable debut as
Percival's love interest, Angel.
Shot in a style
that's part MTV and part wannabe-"Chinatown," the movie lovingly if
sometimes fancifully re-creates the era -- all of the characters
seem to be living fairly high on the hog, despite the inconvenience
of the Great Depression. Choreographed by three-time Tony winner
Hinton Battle ("Dreamgirls"), the handful of dance numbers are an
exciting mix of '30s jive and modern break dancing. And while the
basic story is a bit hoary -- I'm spoiling nothing in revealing that
Rooster eventually abandons the thug life to tend to his family,
while Percival loses Angel but makes it to the big time in Chicago
(hey ya!) -- is nonetheless effective, up to a point.
That point would
have been about 85 minutes in, though the movie runs for nearly two
hours. And if Benjamin solemnly intoning the famous quote from
Shakespeare's "As You Like It" ("All the world's a stage, and all
the men and women merely players...") was cheesy at the start of the
film, it became annoying in the middle and downright stupid when it
was repeated a third time near the end.
In addition to
this unnecessary fat in serious need of trimming, "Idlewild" suffers
from a lack of focus, trying to be something for everyone: It's a
love story; a sub-"Scarface" gangster movie (complete with sudden
and jarring eruptions of violence) and a buddy film -- though the
relationship between Patton and Benjamin is seriously underplayed,
adding more fuel to the speculation that OutKast is destined to
split. Most of all, though, it's a musical -- which, again, is its
and producers, Benjamin and Patton seem to have little real affinity
for this era. In his big production numbers, Benjamin doesn't seem
to know whether he wants to be Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington or Louis
Armstrong, so he tries to channel all three simultaneously, upping
the flamboyant silliness and minimizing the fact that he can't
really sing. Meanwhile, Patton appears to enjoy his bad-boy
lover-man role and the natty clothes, but he seems embarrassed by
the hackneyed attempts to summon period sounds, so he just tries to
rap through his numbers as quickly as possible, as if rapid-fire
flow will prevail over pervasive cheese.
In the end, the
saddest thing about "Idlewild" is that all of the pieces were
present for a very good film. But Patton and Benjamin, who have
accepted few stylistic restraints over the course of six wildly
inventive albums, for some reason felt compelled to limit the music
to a sound and style they just didn't feel. By its very nature, a
musical can never be super-realistic, and they didn't seem troubled
by other whimsical touches like a talking rooster.
Who ever said
that OutKast couldn't have powered a film set in a '30s speakeasy
with non-'30s sounds? Songs as strong as the best this group has
given us in the new millennium would have gone a long way to making
a just-OK movie about the distant past something pretty special.