“Idlewild,” aka “The OutKast Project,” achieves magic–something sorely missing from so many movies these days–and does so via a philosophy of respect, but not reverence, for what’s come before it; it never recycles, it just reimagines. With its two platinum-selling pop stars, propulsive musicality and a something-for-everyone approach leading to a huge payoff, pic should not only lure its target fan base but achieve crossover success as well.
Fashioning his musical fable like a Warner Bros. Prohibition drama in which production numbers erupt at the local nightclub, writer-director Bryan Barber has absorbed all the gangster tropes, along with a healthy dose of Coen brothers’ irrationality, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” comedy and Terry Gilliam-style animation.
Andre 3000 and Big Boi — aka Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton — mount musical numbers that are incongruous, but only to a point: Given the sense of enchantment with which Barber sets up his film — with the playful manipulation of archival photos, notation dancing across pages of music, a talking whiskey flask and various effects-driven visual pranks — he has created a universe in which rap, swing, Ma Rainey-style blues (as performed by Macy Gray) and special effects might very well co-congregate in a place like Church, the Georgia speakeasy where so much of “Idlewild” unfolds.
Percival (Benjamin) and Rooster (Patton) are childhood friends who seem destined to go into their fathers’ businesses — in Percival’s case, undertaking; in Rooster’s, bootlegging. But between mortuary duties, Percival plays piano at Church, which is owned by the unpleasant Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love) until he, and the gangster Spats (Ving Rhames), are ventilated by the even more unpleasant Trumpy (Terrence Howard).
Trumpy — more evidence that Howard is among the best actors working — is a sociopathic free-lance thug who puts the squeeze on Rooster, once Rooster has inherited the club.
In between juggling women, deceiving his wife (Malinda Williams) and performing his own explosive numbers at the nightclub, Rooster has to make money and keep from getting killed.
Barber’s background in musicvideo — including his genre-blending work with OutKast — is obvious, both in his acrobatic camera and his leisurely approach to the actual narrative. A story really doesn’t start until about 30 minutes into the film, but there’s so much going on, few will complain.
Once Barber jump-starts the narrative — which includes an ill-fated romance between Percival and show-biz hopeful Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) — it follows a rather predictable path. What keeps “Idlewild” from idling is the ornamentation — music, manipulation of image and stylistic unpredictability.
Barber is in total control. From the staccato gestures of figures over the opening moments, to the way dance girls move like silent movie characters in old, mistimed “flickers” to the stammer of one of Trumpy’s henchmen, Barber infuses his film with a sense of rhythm — and this is in addition to the music itself.
“Idlewild” may not succeed entirely in terms of story structure, dramatic motivation or acting (both Benjamin and Patton are good, although Patton is the one the camera loves). But it has such ineffable charm and pure entertainment value, it’s hard to imagine auds going only once.