August 31, 2006

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Idlewild (R)
The guys from OutKast, André "André 300" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, make a mighty fine music video and add just enough dialogue and plot to make it a movie in Idlewild, a hip-hop meets 1930s big band swing musical set in the prohibition-era South.

Not an Academy Award-winning movie, though I do expect some songs, costumes and sets will be nominated, but enough of a movie that you are willing to sit still during the breaks between musical numbers. I should say that Idlewild is not a musical in the Chicago or Moulin Rouge sense of the genre. Most of its musical numbers are actually performances on the stage of Church, the Georgia speakeasy where most of the film's action takes place.

Percival (Benjamin) is the indoor-oriented son of a mortician who has spent his life being groomed to take on this gloomy family business. His only outlets of liveliness in this quiet-voice existence have been Rooster (Patton), a trouble-making friend since childhood, and his piano playing. So enmeshed in the instrument is Percival that he sees the music notes dance, goof around and talk to him — generally having the boisterous good time he isn't.

Now a grown man still acting more or less like a cowed boy, Percival has managed to get a gig playing piano at Church, Idlewild, Georgia's hopping gin-joint, where Rooster is the headlining performer.

Though married with a seemingly endless number of children, Rooster finds plenty of female love at Church and a little bit of trouble, mostly in the form of the gangster Spats (Ving Rhames), a man who taught Rooster the fundamentals of bootlegging.

When Spats looks to retire, both Rooster and the Church's giant owner Ace (Faizon Love) are considered as possible successors. This doesn't sit well with Trumpy (Terrence Howard), Spats' right-hand man. When the dust from the power struggle settles, Trumpy ends up in control of the bootlegging with a beleaguered Rooster responsible for paying back Spats' debts on Church.

Meanwhile in Percival land, a singer named Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) has arrived at Church. She's meant to unseat Taffy (Macy Gray) as head sultry singer and help bring in the crowds. Percival, who spends his time writing thinkier music than the Church crowd is used to, catches her eye and together they develop a new sound for Angel.

Much like the Speakerboxx/The Love Below album (essentially solo albums for Andre 300 and Big Boi packaged together), Idlewild involves both members of OutKast but seldom puts them together. There is the campy gangster story of Rooster and the equally campy "someday we're gonna get out of this town and show the world our talents" tale of Percival. Both stories stand less as well-thought-out pieces of cinema but more as smart, eye-catching pieces of pop art using 1930s musicals and post-gangsta hip-hop as its media. The result is therefore occasionally mushy and doesn't always fit well together as one coherent story (it's easy to forget about Rooster when you're watching Percival and easy to forget about the romance with Angel when you're watching Rooster struggle with new responsibilities and threats).

But the musical numbers provide a nice amount spectacle, full of sassy dancing girls and enjoyable musical arrangements that ought to entertain OutKast fans and their Cab Calloway-loving elders. Everyone will have his own favorite song — personally, I'm quite fond of the jazzy little number that plays during the first part of the closing credits. It's a straight-up, Benjamin-singing-to-the-camera stage act that's worth sticking around for.

Idlewild features plenty of good, not great, performances and some good, not great, writing and some OK, not all that good, camera work. But it also is full of glittery visuals and truly fun music that make it an entertaining, showbiz-y treat. B-

— Amy Diaz


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