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."
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
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."