Not wild for Outkast's 'Idle'


August 20, 2006


In one of those oddly serendipitous coincidences, while sitting through 20 minutes of previews and ads at the movies last week, I caught the trailer for the hip-hop duo Outkast's new film "Idlewild" right after a soft-drink commercial scored to a song called "You Give a Little Love," one of several enduring anthems from Alan Parker's 1976 film, "Bugsy Malone."

A forgotten classic (it's not available on VHS or DVD in the United States, but I treasure my Chinese bootleg), "Bugsy Malone" starred Jodie Foster and Scott Baio as two members of an entirely prepubescent cast spoofing Capone-era gangland warfare, with machine guns that shot whipped cream and a soundtrack written by Paul Williams.

"Idlewild," which opens on Friday, is also set during the Great Depression, though it takes place in the 1930s in a Georgia speakeasy. It features Outkast's Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin as Percival, the club's shy piano player, and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton as Rooster, a flamboyant singer and ladies' man in a tale about -- you knew this was coming -- "struggling performers in their quest for love, fame and success."

Both movies have an aspect of "Hey, kids, let's dress up and put on a show!" Since I haven't seen "Idlewild" yet, I can't comment on the quality of the film, which the overgrown kids in Outkast have been trying to make with their friend and video director Bryan Barber for the last eight years. But having had plenty of time to digest the 25-song soundtrack -- which comes out Tuesday, and is being marketed as the long-awaited follow-up to Outkast's 5-million-selling 2003 hit "Speakerboxxx" / "The Love Below" -- it pains me to say it, but the soundtrack for "Bugsy Malone" is a much better disc.

In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, the rappers, singers and studio wizards said they crafted the tracks in the midst of making the movie. "This is probably the first musical that didn't have the music done before it was shot," Benjamin said. But Outkast wasn't making a traditional movie musical: No one spontaneously bursts into song, and the tunes mostly appear as background music. "I don't know if audiences are into those type of musicals like we were when we were kids when we saw 'Singin' in the Rain,' " Patton said. "Now, it's more like 'Purple Rain' than 'Singin' in the Rain.' "

Judged strictly as an album, however, the Prince disc that "Idlewild" recalls most is the sprawling mess of "Graffiti Bridge."

Amid plenty of inspired, genre-blurring sonic invention and unforgettable singles such as "BOB (Bombs Over Baghdad)" and "Hey Ya," Outkast has always had a problem focusing, and both "Stankonia" (2000) and "Speakerboxxx" / "The Love Below" had too much filler, failed experimentation and pointless silliness along with the undeniable moments of greatness.

The latter had the added problem of the widening schism between Benjamin and Patton, with each claiming one disc for himself. Despite their insistence that they're not splitting up, the two only rap together on two tracks here (including the disappointing single "Mighty 'O' "), and "Idlewild" plays like the last double album all mashed together -- a collection of solo tunes, but on one CD this time -- burdened by the added conceit of a pervasive retro vibe.

Christina Aguilera turned to the same era for musical inspiration on her new album, "Back to Basics," but she seems to have had a lot more genuine affinity for the music, at least on the tracks produced by DJ Premier. For Benjamin and Patton, it's all about heavy-handed, faux Scott Joplin ragtime piano; showy but lame Cab Calloway horn arrangements; fake Rudy Vallee crooning (courtesy of Benjamin's nasal, off-key whine) and ultra-hammy vaudeville shucking and jiving.

"Say whoa, Nelly! Say whoa, Pappy! / Everybody get up! / No, no, no, no / Everybody get down!" Benjamin chants over and over again on "PJ & Rooster," but that's 19 tracks into the disc, and he'll have annoyed you to the point where you want to strangle him long before that, thanks to dreadful failed show tunes such as "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry 'Bout Me)," "Chronomentophobia" and "Greatest Show on Earth" (which features an awful guest turn by Macy Gray; other cameo offenders including Lil' Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Janelle Monae).

Patton doesn't seem to be entirely sold on all of this, and the handful of decent moments here are his, including his joint rap with Sleepy Brown on the understated "Peaches," which can be removed from the '30s context to stand as a sad comment about a broken marriage. But Benjamin seems to be having a ball strutting, preening and doing anything but rapping. In the end, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea if the dynamic duo did split up -- at least it would free Patton to go back to pushing the envelope in hip-hop, while Benjamin would be easier to dismiss or enjoy, depending on whether he could give us another "Hey Ya" or not.

Meanwhile, the capsule review for "Idlewild" could be taken from the lyrics for the aptly titled "Makes No Sense at All": "Razz-a-ma-tazz, thingamajig, whatchamacallit / Bulls---! ... Makes no sense at all / Blah blah, blah blah."