Director : Bryan Barber
Screenplay : Bryan Barber
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : André Benjamin (Percival), Antwan A. Patton (Rooster), Paula Patton (Angel), Terrence Howard (Trumpy), Faizon Love (“Sunshine” Ace), Malinda Williams (Zora), Cicely Tyson (Mother Hopkins), Macy Gray (Taffy), Ben Vereen (Percy Senior), Paula Jai Parker (Rose), Bobb’e J. Thompson (Young Rooster), Patti LaBelle (Angel Davenport), Ving Rhames (Spats)
The name “Idlewild,” which comes from a fictional small town off the dusty roads of backwoods Prohibition-era Georgia, summarizes what is so infectious about Idlewild the movie. Combining two completely disjunctive words, the town’s name conveys jazz-hedonism just beneath the surface of a sleepy burg; it’s stasis and motion combined. While most movies of this sort tend to be set in the bright-lights districts of Chicago or Harlem or L.A., Idlewild concentrates its musical and criminal exhilarations in the middle of nowhere, using the big city as a siren call beckoning to its dreamer characters.
The movie stars the two members of OutKast, André Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi) as two unlikely friends. Benjamin’s Percival is a quiet musician who has grown up straight and narrow under the watchful (one could say repressive) eye of his mortician father (Ben Vereen). Patton’s Rooster, on the other hand, was a rabble-rouser from day one. It’s no surprise that he is the star attraction of the local speakeasy, ironically named The Church, which is run a hefty playboy in overalls named “Sunshine” Ace (Faizon Love) and supplied with illegal booze by Rooster’s gangster uncle, Spats (Ving Rhames). Percival plays piano at The Church, but he is an outsider because he doesn’t fully engage in the raucous nighttime extravagance; it will take the movie’s entire running time for him to fully embrace his inner Cab Calloway.
The narrative is roughly split in half, which is a rather obvious and depressing parallel to the increasingly loud rumors that OutKast doesn’t have much time left as a duo (Benjamin and Patton have only about three scenes together). Rooster’s story involves the take-over of The Church by Trumpy (Terrence Howard), a soft-spoken, but vicious gangster, as well as Rooster’s attempts to repair the damage his late-night carousing and casual infidelity has inflicted on his family. Percival’s story, on the other hand, supplies the movie with its traditional romance in the form of Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a gorgeous torch singer who arrives in a divaesque flurry all the way from St. Louis, yet immediately finds herself attracted to the “piano man.”
Idlewild is the writing and directing debut of Bryan Barber, a former music-video director who helmed some of OutKast’s most notable videos. His story is a mish-mash of gangster and musical clichés, and even though it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, he wrings a significant amount of pathos from the melodrama and tension from the violence. As a music video director, he has a keen eye and an experimental temperament, which both serves and undermines his efforts. Some of his more outlandish conceits, such as using a wall of cuckoo clocks as backup for one of Percival’s solo numbers, are so silly they’re brilliant. On the other hand, he falls into the digital effects trap when it comes time for guns to go a’blazing, giving us overwrought bullet-time point-of-view shots that draw attention to their trickery, rather than racheting up the intensity.
Whenever Idlewild delves into the wild night life at The Church, it truly comes alive, giving us energetic musical numbers that mix rap, jazz, blues, swing, and bluegrass into a escalating mix that is as exciting as it is unlikely. Barber and cinematographer Pascal Rabaud give the film a matching bold, brassy look; it’s all strong contrast and primary Technicolors.
Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001), a movie to which it is frequently compared, Idlewild doesn’t take its postmodern pastiche to exhausting levels. Rather, it plays with the boundaries between then and now, carefully blurring them to create a fantasy world in which style and substance are no longer mutually exclusive. You’ll probably come to Idlewild for the musical excitement, but you may just find yourself leaving with a surprisingly bittersweet lump in your throat.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Universal Pictures