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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Idlewild" (2006)

Something about the goofy musical “Idlewild” works. I can’t put my finger on it, but in the end I walked out feeling the movie won me over. Oh, sure, it’s incredibly disjointed and could use more singing and less talking, but in the end I couldn’t help but root for this movie. I don’t see it as a vanity project for Outkast, because why else would they give the juciest part to Terrance Howard? Or give the best music sequence to Paula Patton? I don’t think anybody showed up on the set to take a back seat to Big Boi and Andre 3,000, because there’s not much of a show to steal from them. In the end, “Idlewild” is more about the atmosphere, the time period and mixing up genres, both with music and film.

The story is nothing new. It gets voiceover narration treatment from Percival (Andre 3,000, or Andre Benjamin if you prefer), a mortician by day, soft-spoken piano player in a nightclub by night. He plays in a club called The Church, where the cool, enigmatic Rooster (Big Boi, or Antwan Patton) raps and dances on stage with dozens of showgirls to an appreciative and energetic crowd each night. The club is owned by Ace (Faizon Love), who owes a sizeable debt to Spats (Ving Rhames), who provides the club with illegal alcohol. Eventually, bullets fly and Rooster is put in charge of the club. He not only has to take responsibility for the debt, he has to answer to Trumpy (Terrance Howard), Spats’ ruthless and unforgiving right hand man.

Of course, women must eventually enter the scene and complicate their lives even further, except that Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) might actually save the day (in case her name didn’t give that away). A superstar diva in her own right, Angel wins the attention of the talented Percival, who helps her along with a musical style all his own as a way of easing her into the club (she is competing with Macy Gray, after all). Rooster has his fierce and frustrated wife Zora (Malida Williams) and four kids to deal with, on top of trying to pay off his debts. Eventually, their stories collide in probably just the way you would expect.

Even the film’s “experiment” is really nothing new. Director Bryan Barber and Outkast had it in their heads to mix the ‘30s gangster genre with contemporary hip-hop. It’s not exactly a bold move, but it could have gone horribly wrong. Instead, this movie has a vested interest in its storyline and characters (such as they are). They seem to believe in their product 100% and it shows. The period comes alive and the stylistic touches never overwhelm the narrative. Barber knows just when to hold back and let the more dramatic, dialogue-driven scenes play out as they should. The sparse musical numbers are big, weird and wonderful and the cast hit all the right notes. Yes, even Outkast.

For fans of this gifted hip-hop duo, all I can say is don’t be fooled by the Soundtrack that’s in stores now. It’s a terrific album in its own right, but many of the songs don’t appear in the movie. A couple from their Grammy-winning, monumental Speakerboxx/the Love Below do appear (one of the original titles of the movie was Speakerboxx). I bring this up in a movie review because I happened to have listened to the album prior to seeing the movie, and both mediums represent a piece of the same product. They act as an extension of each other. The album is better.

Maybe I root for movies like this because so few of them get made, let alone made well. Every once in a while I like to revel in the absurdity and audacity of a movie that knows it’s not for everyone. When a character starts rapping during a car chase scene, it can either make or break a movie. Here, it makes the movie, because it’s done with style, wit and a strong belief from everyone involved that it will work. It does, as do many other ridiculous moments in the film. When a movie opens with Macy Gray singing a song about running away to join the circus and damn near ends with another character singing a song to a corpse, you won’t hear me complaining about how boring movies have become. Not for a while anyway.

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