It takes until the final scenes of this “Rashomon”-like account of the life of 1950s doo-wop singer Frankie Lymon for Gregory Nava’s film to find its proper tone of darkly farcical comedy. Up to then, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” lurches around between defining itself as standard rock ‘n’ roll biopic, cautionary tale and overheated courtroom drama, as the dead crooner’s three would-be widows do everything but tear one another’s hair out in pursuit of royalties to his legacy. Per the trailer, pic is being sold as a sort of black music world “First Wives Club”; Warner Bros. should be so lucky, as pic is too ill defined to emerge from the pack of B.O. also-rans.
Nava has opened up a bit from the respectful, borderline reverential posture of his last picture, the Tejano music bio “Selena,” but not nearly enough to give this time-and-point-of-view-jumping tale the caustic tone and narrative discipline it needed. As it stands, “Fools” is a hodgepodge and a curiosity, a sympathetic look at three women floundering in the wake of a celebrated male entertainer that suggests only toward the end what it could have been — the first Preston Sturges–like comedy about a real-life ne’er-do-well in the music biz.
Leapfrogging between the ’50s, when Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers scored a phenomenal hit with the titular tune, and the ’80s, when three women stepped forward with questionable but undismissible legal claims to their alleged ex-husband’s estate, film hits the notes familiar from so many previous music sagas: the humble beginnings, sudden success, expansion of ego and sexual horizons on tour, dissension among longtime close friends within the group, eventual disintegration via drugs and financial irresponsibility, attempts at a comeback, and wasteful early death.
Despite all the onscreen IDs of dates, certain sobering realities remain obscure: that Frankie Lymon was only 13 when “Fools” stormed onto the charts in 1956, that he and the Teenagers were together for only a year, and that he was only 25 when he died.
What is evident, however, is that Frankie (Larenz Tate) had a beautiful voice , dynamic stage presence and winning personal manner, which unsurprisingly translated into a way with the ladies. As related from the courtroom stand, the first of these was Zola Taylor (Halle Berry), a beauteous member of the R&B group the Platters, which was coming up at the same time.
When Zola bows out and takes off on tour, Frankie picks up shoplifter Elizabeth Waters (Vivica A. Fox), who is as low-down as Zola was classy, and soon sets up housekeeping with her. With his career on the skids while still in his teens, however, Frankie soon becomes hooked on heroin, and, after he passes out onstage, Elizabeth even resorts to prostitution to pay for his recovery, which he doesn’t pursue seriously.
Later, Frankie meets Zola again in L.A. and they soon marry, although the validity of his marriages and divorces, as well as those of the three main women in his life, are the focus of much of the legal inquiry. A one-shot appearance on TV’s “Hullabaloo” (amusingly following the Kinks onstage) reps a brief reminder of past triumphs, but Zola returns from a tour to find that Frankie has not only trashed her hillside home and plundered her bank account, but has been drafted into the Army.
Next we know, Frankie is in Georgia, courting and marrying virtuous, virginal schoolteacher Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon) before being hauled off by MPs for being four months AWOL.
Tina Andrews’ script skips quickly from one career highlight and lowlight to another, bringing no more psychological or emotional insight into Frankie’s erratic and unseemly behavior than would an average documentary survey of his life. Despite the signposts, there is little feel for time passing, and changes in period are duly noted in the most obvious ways: musical cues, shots of hippies, protesters and the like.
Very late in the game, however, when the three “widows” uncomfortably find themselves stuck together outside the courtroom but eventually start bonding over their common predicament, pic suddenly snaps to life when Zola remarks, “That flat-footed little weirdo played all of us.” This was the perspective pic could have used all along, one of affectionate derision toward the man who briefly thrilled them but basically left them all miserable.
Given that Lymon, for all his performing talent, was not much more than a one-shot hitmaker, filmmakers might have spared us so much straightforward biographical stuff in favor of more jaundiced commentary from the witnesses — the widows as well as others. Ironic ending, which scatters plenty of buckshot in the direction of standard music-industry business practices, only sustains this view that the material needs more of an edge.
Performances by the four principals — Berry, Fox, Rochon and Tate — are lively and proficient, if occasionally a little over the top. Tate’s live performance scenes, including some done before massive theater audiences, have convincing energy and excitement, and are effectively covered by the mobile camera of lenser Ed Lachman, who also shot “Selena” for Nava. Appearance in courtroom scenes by Little Richard, a friend of Lymon’s who toured with him, reps a distinct highlight, and the rock ‘n’ roll legend is nicely impersonated in the ’50s sequences by Miguel A. Nunez Jr. Paul Mazursky oozes showbiz sleaze as Frankie’s thieving record producer.
Production evinces a backlot look rather too often, and features the occasional period anachronism, such as having years-ago characters exclaim, “Yes!” with accompanying arm movement when things go their way, and telling people to “chill” long before the term made it onto the streets.