Antwan A Patton
OutKast fans expecting to see their heroes starring in a hip hop musical are going to be disappointed… Idlewild is more like a cartoon version of The Cotton Club on speed.
Set in the deep South the plot is zippy and unrepentantly preposterous, following the contrasting and intertwined fortunes of two black friends growing up during Prohibition. Critics expecting to see musicians overreaching themselves in a vanity project are also going to be disappointed because although plot and acting creak in places the exuberance of the musical performances, not to mention the extraordinary cinematography, pull it through.
We see Rooster (Antwan ‘Big Boi’ Patton, the aggressive, chunky one from OutKast with the fondness for loud clothes) grow from junior hoodlum, smuggling hooch in a hearse, to speakeasy performer who inherits the club under murderous circumstances. His big-mouthed wife (played with wry weariness by Malinda Williams) suspects, quite correctly, that the place is the cynosure of depravity.
She should be heartened, however, by the presence of Rooster’s best friend, shy undertaker and part-time piano player Percival (Andre ‘Andre 3000’ Benjamin, the one with the Jimmy Hill chin, sweet smile and fondness for even more outrageous outfits). Percival befriends a famous jazz singer, Angel Davenport (newcomer Paula Patton), who arrives as the star turn at the club. Although both nervous performers, as a duo they bring the house down.
Angel, in grand musical tradition, is the maid who’s stolen her famous mistress’s identity, not to mention a couple of sequined frocks, and come to fulfil an engagement the real star feels is beneath her, discovering her own star quality en route. They swiftly fall in love, which means Percival must choose between running off to Chicago with his lady-love to become a famous performer, and staying home in a small town with a grumpy dad, draining the blood from corpses for recreation.
Director Bryan Barber, who also wrote the film, is well known to OutKast fans as the guy who directed memorable videos for Hey Ya! and Roses. With a background in videos it’s unsurprising that he moves things along at a good clip, and has plenty of clever visual twists to keep the audience entertained: time modulation to point up key moments; Rooster’s bad angel, an animated talking hip flask that eggs him on to drunken debauchery; the use of outsizing of certain figures or elements so they seem to expand before your eyes. Although I was annoyed by certain elements of the film (chiefly the limp romance and the lack of musical numbers in the latter part) it certainly didn’t drag.
Barber attracted a number of well known names to the project, including a cameo by Patti LaBelle, and Ben Vereen as Percival’s drunken father, still angry about his wife’s death. And Macy Gray gives a swaggering performance as a louche nightclub singer. The biggest surprise of the film is Antwan Patton. He may be playing to type, but he’s a commanding figure on screen, unlike his partner Benjamin. Before seeing it I would have put money on the latter being the better actor, but there are times when he seems to be standing around waiting for someone to deliver his next cue. There’s no romantic spark between him and Paula Patton and he does far too much bashful smiling.
No human performer came close to outclassing the real stars of the film, the music and particularly the dancing. The choreography of the numbers inside the club was absolutely explosive, a loose-limbed mix of Jive and Jitterbugging that just bombarded the viewer with energy. Frankly I could have watched just that for two hours.
You’re not going to learn anything profound about the human condition watching Idlewild. You’re not going to learn much of anything (except that it is possible for a man to wear plus fours and still look sexy). But you will be entertained. And these days that’s saying quite a lot.