Beyond hip-hop: Helmer fights rap on period musicals

“I was inspired to do this film probably because people said, ‘It can’t be done,’ ” says Bryan Barber, writer-helmer of recent Universal release “Idlewild,” the audacious period hip-hop musical that stars Atlanta rappers OutKast.

“People would tell me that a period piece from the 1930s is not marketable,” he adds. “And I just thought it was bullshit.”

But while studios may wonder whether musicals can still deliver — after “The Producers” and “Rent” seemingly disappeared into the box office ether late last year — it’s hard to say no to an act that’s sold more than 20 million copies of their six released albums.

And luckily for Barber, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “Andre 3000″ Benjamin were solidly on his side.

“I think recently musicals have been out of touch with the fan base in terms of the music,” Barber explains. “I really wanted to bridge that gap.”

Barber certainly can’t be described as out of touch. His visuals for OutKast’s most celebrated videos — including “The Whole World,” “Hey Ya!” “The Way You Move” and “Roses,” off of their 2003 release “SpeakerBoxxx/The Love Below” — highlighted the act’s distinctive sound and look, helping them cross over to millions of MTV fans.

And his unique visuals have become part of OutKast’s public identity, which led many to classify Barber as the unofficial third member of the group.

Much like “Moulin Rouge!,” “Idlewild,” set in the Prohibition-era South, combines period glamour with a contemporary music sensibility. The story follows speakeasy performer and club manager Rooster (Patton) and the club’s piano player Percival (Benjamin) as they contend with gangsters, love and ambition. Big Boi and Andre 3000 might be dressed the part, but when they sing and dance there is nothing period about it.

Much like “Moulin” director Baz Lurhmann, Barber employs broad-stroke characterizations, frenetic cutting, manic choreography and lots of razzle-dazzle visual effects.

The film is sure to boost awareness of OutKast’s new album of the same name. In its review of the LP, the New York Times noted that “OutKast’s brains and playfulness sparkle throughout ‘Idlewild,’” while Variety, in its critique of the film, said “Idlewild” “achieves magic — something sorely missing from so many movies these days.”

But more importantly, the film’s innovations might just give the woebegone movie musical a critical shot in the arm, not to mention a major push to Big Boi and Andre 3000′s acting ambitions.

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