IDLEWILD (Bryan Barber, 2006)
André Benjamin and Antwan Patton of OutKast star in IDLEWILD, a hip-hop musical set in 1935. The two play childhood friends Rooster and Percival. Patton is the bootlegging understudy Rooster, who helps run and stars on the stage of the ironically named juke joint Church. Benjamin is Percival, a mortician's son and sensitive piano player whose nights are spent banging the keys in the house band at Idlewild, Georgia’s den of iniquity.
The cocksure Rooster faces trouble when a new gangster takes a murderous path to becoming the top crime boss in town. Meanwhile, Percival shyly goes about helping the club’s new singer.
IDLEWILD overflows with inventiveness and random weirdness that sort of make it a must-see even if it isn’t a particularly good film. Benjamin duets with a wall of cuckoo clocks, and Rooster’s flask talks to him. Director Bryan Barber has lensed several OutKast videos and Christina Aguilera’s retro-futurist “Ain’t No Other Man”. His eye for terrific visuals is enhanced by some of the most stunning production and art design in any film this year.
IDLEWILD is snappily paced, and the songs, largely drawn from 2003’s SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW, keep things moving when the story drags. The problem is that the story is so superfluous that there’s little to no dramatic tension in the film, turning it into a glorified long form music video.
There’s also surprisingly little comedy, one aspect of OutKast’s albums that is sorely missed. The group has been rumored to be on the verge of breaking up since they released the double album that functioned virtually as dual solo albums. The film won’t do anything to dash such talk. The two rarely share scenes and seem to inhabit different films.
Unfortunately, Benjamin’s section is out of tune with the performer’s voice. (Strangely, the film also does the same thing with its veteran performers. Patti LaBelle and Ben Vereen appear but aren’t given any moments to strut their stuff.) He oozes energy, charisma, and humor, qualities that are absent in his downbeat storyline. It’s not until the end credits that he gets to cut loose in a Busby Berkeley-like number that beats every performance scene in IDLEWILD. If more of this Dirty South spin on MOULIN ROUGE had tapped that fun side, it might have been something else.