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It takes more than just a handful of songs to turn a movie into a musical. The music and choreography should serve to progress the story in some way, not interrupt it. That’s a very simple observation, but one that seems to have escaped the creative minds behind Idlewild. OutKast members Andre 3000 and Big Boi bring their particular brand of hip hop to the 1930’s gangster drama, but instead of integrating with the film and creating harmony, the heavily stylized music grinds the story to a halt each and every time. The resulting movie is a series of MTV music videos strung together with an almost gratuitously R-rated plot that never gets to realize its full potential.
Not that any of the above should come as a surprise. Writer/director Bryan Barber ambitiously made the jump from hip hop music director to feature length musical in a single bound. While he does a great job of making his actors look sexy during their musical numbers (and seems to revel in the fact that he has free reign to show breasts and Andre 3000’s naked rear), he seems completely lost in knowing what to do with them the rest of the time. That’s the greatest shame, given the amazing cast he somehow managed to assemble for his film.
Rooster (Big Boi/Andrew A. Patton) and Percival (Andre 3000/André Benjamin) have been best friends since childhood. Rooster’s father, Spats (Ving Rhames), is a gangster/bootlegger in the business of killing people. Percivals’s father (Ben Vereen), the owner of a mortuary, is in the business of buying them. When Spats decides it’s time to retire he prepares to sell his business to one of his clients, Ace (Faizon Love). Ace just also happens to own Church, a speakeasy/dance hall where Rooster sings and Percival plays piano. Spats’ right hand man Trumpy (Terrence Howard) is tired of playing second fiddle and decides to kill both Spats and Ace so that he can take control of the booze running operation instead, leaving Rooster to run the dance hall.
Meanwhile Percival struggles with his desire to get out from under his father’s shadow and go someplace where his new and different musical style will truly be appreciated. His prayers are answered when Angel (Paula Patton) arrives at Church. A famous singer, she’s there for a month long engagement at the dance hall where her presence promises to help Rooster keep the place afloat. Naturally, she’s drawn to Mr. Nice Guy Percival, and the two realize they may be each others’ key to moving on to bigger and better things.
If all that actor name dropping wasn’t enough, let me add a few more to the list. Patti LaBelle, Macy Gray and Cicely Tyson make appearances as well. It’s a massive cast with phenomenal potential, but all of it is wasted on Barber’s squelched story. I was stunned that Patti LaBelle and Ben Vereen would land in a musical but never dance or sing a single note. In fact, apart from one song each to Macy and Paula, OutKast are the only ones who do any singing. Tyson meanwhile turns in a very moving performance for the two minutes she’s actually on screen. Watching Barber squander such talent as he crafts his film is like watching a teenager receive a Rolls Royce and then promptly drive it at five miles per hour into a lake. It’s not just tragic, it’s frustrating.
For all its faults and shortcomings as a musical (or a regular movie for that matter), Idlewild is still a very beautifully piece of film. It’s all the flamboyance, glitter and gritty 30’s flair that makes the movie endurable. Little eccentricities like singing cuckoo clocks and a talking whiskey flask add a bit of clever quirkiness, but it’s all just a very thick layer of frosting on a crumbling cake. There’s no heart, no spark, and without it the movie is a very unsatisfying experience that will probably only truly delight the most die hard OutKast fans.
It’s hard to not draw parallels with Moulin Rouge when this movie shamelessly borrows some of its finer plot devices from the superior film. Barber would have done well to pay attention to how it handled the music as well. While it was probably the easiest choice, giving Big Boi and Andre 3000 free reign as music supervisors may not have been the best move. They obviously know their way around the hip hop world, but they flounder when it comes to crafting a full blown musical. It’s not that the potential isn’t there, it just isn’t there yet. As if showing he can do more than hip hop, Andre puts on a song and dance show during the credits worthy of Sammy Davis Jr. or Fred Astaire. Alas, it’s too little too late.