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A musical set in the Prohibition-era American South, where a speakeasy performer and club manager Rooster must contend with gangsters who have their eyes on the club while his piano player and partner Percival must choose between his love, Angel or his obligations to his father. Written by
Idlewild is a movie that tries to attain great musical heights, but fails as often as it succeeds.
Idlewild's greatest fault is that it is really uneven in tone. There were parts of it I really loved the prologue scenes, and some of the musical numbers, and then parts that just seemed to go splat on the screen. The tone of the beginning, very witty and hell-bent-for-leather, was great and seemed to be a great frame for a story about two hustlers - it seemed reminiscent of the winking, headlong tone of "The Sting" - and if the movie could have maintained that tone it might have been a tour de force. But other parts of the film were morose and uninteresting. Which leads us, unfortunately, to Andre 3000.
I understand making 3000 the Luke Skywalker and Big Boi the Han Solo, but Boi's character of Rooster was so much more interesting a character that whenever he wasn't on the screen the movie just went flat. It just seems to be a bad idea to have a main character who seemingly has no desire to attain his dreams he's kind of an anti-Joseph-Campbell hero and the other characters have to shove Percival toward his dreams like corralling a steer to slaughter. His mortician father is supposed to be his obstacle to the life Percival is meant to live, but it seems apathy is a more likely stumbling block; Percival looks more uncomfortable on stage than he does dressing bodies in the funeral home, instead of coming alive when he performs, which seems to be what the character requires.
I liked the music for the most part, but 3000 is the major failing here as well. His persona (it's hard to say that either he or Boi are acting since their characters hew so closely to the personas they have created for OutKast) is such the brooding artist that when the movie needs a shot of "I've finally made it!" razz ma tazz, he's not up to the task and the ending comes away like a lead balloon. I thought that for the most part they did a rather clever job blending the 30's music with the OutKast brand of the hippity hop, and my only complaint here is that Barber directed the music scenes like music videos and so the actors are obviously lip-synching, where a live performance captured for the film might have been exhilarating, here it comes off with the rote polished quality of any hip hop video with the actors seeming to walk through their performances rather than actually performing. The anachronistic quality of the songs isn't as jarring as I thought it might be, it's just the presentation of the music that takes you out of the time and place.
Otherwise, it's shot really well. There are some innovative visual effects that help guide the story, and the dances are staged with such vigor and bawdy realism that they have the gutbucket charm of the early "race" musicals.
The period look of the film is gorgeous; there's a whole lot of production value here - the sets and costumes notorious clotheshorses 3000 and Boi sport made me drool a little, and the ensemble cast is fantastic. It's Depression-Era Black South, but this particular vision seems to be a time and place little explored in cinema. With the exception of a touching scene late in the film in which Rooster, wayward after his long-suffering wife finally leaves him, encounters a religious woman literally at the end of the road, gives her some money and receives a Bible in return, the majority of the movie takes place among the black bourgeoisie and race or class is never an issue. Unfortunately, that touching scene is just an excuse to set up an unbelievably cliché and predictable scene later on when the Bible does what most cinematic Holy Books end up doing).
Overall, the plot is cliché at times and predictable more often than that, and gives the sense of a first-time writer/director finding his way, and there are some scenes that just don't make sense without spoilering, there's a glaring flaw that happens in the crucial first act that's both sloppy and stylistically cliché storytelling.
The biggest travesty, though is something that didn't hit me until I was on the way home. Ben Vereen is cast as 3000's mortician father, the supposed restraining influence. Toward the end of the movie they have a confrontation, which eventually leads to a reconciliation I can't possibly be giving anything away by saying that, or you've never seen a movie before. But on the way home it struck me - how do you have Ben Vereen in this movie and not write it into the script to have Ben Vereen DANCING?!? He's BEN VEREEN for crying out loud! Anyone who directs a musical and doesn't see the necessity of having the most talented cast member perform should have their DGA card revoked. All right, I got a little polemical there, but it seems a grievous oversight to overlook one of the film's greatest resources especially when you're supposed to be honoring the past, and this oversight is somehow indicative of the whole project (and now that I look at it, Patti LaBelle never sang in her cameo as the real Angel Davenport, either. Crispity Crunchity! All right, call the DGA, I'm serious, now.).
Idlewild is a movie that attempts some rather ambitious things; it's just a shame it achieved so few.
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