“Idlewild”, the new musical featuring Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, both members of the musical group OutKast, is a mess. This is both a compliment and a criticism. The result is a wildly uneven film filled with bland performances and a very unique, interesting visual appeal.
Georgia. The Prohibition Era. Percival (Andre Benjamin, “Four Brothers”) works at his father’s (Ben Vereen) funeral home during the day, slowly taking over all responsibilities as his dad boozes the day away. At night, he sings at a local speakeasy called Church, which is run by Ace (Faizon Love). His lifelong friend, Rooster (Antwan Patton), also sings at the club, but runs his former mentor’s (Ving Rhames) illegal activities during the day. Every night, his wife drops him off at the club complaining that he isn’t spending enough time at home, with their five kids. One day, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), a local gangster who also runs booze, has a fight with Ace and before he knows it, Rooster is in charge of Church. Adding the stress of running the club isn’t easy and Rooster doesn’t like paying Trumpy’s increased charges for booze. As Rooster looks for a new source of booze, Percival falls in love with Angel (Paula Patton), a beautiful new singer, who has dreams of going to Chicago to make it big.
“Idlewild”, directed by Bryan Barber, probably would not have been made without the success of “Moulin Rouge” a few years ago. The two films share many characteristics. Like its predecessor, “Idlewild” exhibits a frantic sense of editing; the musical numbers more closely resemble music videos, with most cuts lasting just a few frames. This isn’t surprising given the background of the director and his two stars. Both films also use contemporary music in a historical context providing each with an undeniable energy and appeal.
Barber is clearly more comfortable with the visual than the dramatic. From the moment the film begins, as we watch an old phonograph start playing a record, the director uses a blend of animation, live action, graphics and music to depict the fast moving story of the two friends during the Prohibition Era. As the record begins playing, the camera swoops up to a series of old photographs, slowing dissolving between them. But then, a figure in each begins to move a little, growing slightly, and these photos help to establish the setting and the tone of the story. As we flip through these photos, color begins to dissolve into an old photo and we watch as the film starts and the characters are introduced. Barber returns to this technique, in modified ways, throughout, providing a unique transitional device.
There is also the unusual addition of a talking flask. Rooster inherits the item from his mentor (Rhames) and frequently looks at it. As he looks at it, the rooster in the logo on the silver vessel comes to life, talking to him, providing a sort of Greek chorus. This idea doesn’t really gel and seems to be a distraction.
The musical numbers have a unique energy, a lot of which comes from the fast-paced editing style. This technique adds interest to this portion of the film, but they also help to cover up any inconsistencies in the song or choreography. Strangely, Benjamin and Patton almost never sing together in the film and the songs suffer because of it. Early, Benjamin sings a song which we can barely hear over the din in the club. Later, Patton does a song, rapping through the lyrics as showgirls dance around him. This song is better, but the choreography seems a little stiff. But because of the editing, many of these flaws are covered up. We simply don’t have time to concentrate on any one aspect for long. However, we can hear the song better and the two singers alone are not nearly as dynamic as they are when paired. Late in the film, Benjamin sings a song which is very reminiscent of Cab Calloway (one of Percival’s idols) and seems clearly influenced by Busby Berkeley. Everyone is dressed in white, moving around white pianos in front of a shiny black backdrop. It is an interesting attempt to recreate the look and feel of a bygone era.
The filmmaker and stars deserve a lot of credit for not taking the easy route. Instead of telling a modern day story, they attempt a period piece and the attention to detail is impressive. Dialogue, production design and costumes all appear authentic and the only time the period is lost is during the songs. It had to be a difficult sell to get a studio to make this film. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to make a modern day tale featuring the popular group’s music. The studio probably would’ve preferred it, but by taking this more challenging approach, the film becomes more memorable. It still isn’t perfect, but it is fun to watch.
Movies featuring singers are often problematic. They are trained for different things and are not always able to make the transition to the big screen. Of the two, Benjamin has an undeniable screen charisma. In his previous film, John Singleton’s “Four Brothers”, he worked with a seasoned director and turned in an interesting, believable debut performance. His work in “Idlewild” is good, but bland. He almost never changes his facial expression through good and bad. He clearly needs a more seasoned director to guide him to an interesting, believable performance. Patton is more effective trying to display varying emotions, but his delivery is as bland as Benjamin’s performance. His voice never changes volume, so everything coming out of his mouth (including lyrics) becomes a monotone that fails to reach any highs or lows.
Terrence Howard turns in his least interesting work to date. It is odd to me that he would take such a small, supporting role, after his work in “Hustle and Flow” and “Crash”. He is essentially playing the same character he played in “Four Brothers”, but in a different era, and both characters are uninteresting and stereotypical. We have seen corrupt cops and gangsters before, so if an actor with the skill of Howard is going to take on such a role, he should bring something new to it. In “Idlewild”, he seems to play a stock gangster. There is little, if anything, to make this character memorable.
The supporting cast is impressive, but many of these actors appear for brief glorified cameos. Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Macy Gray, Ving Rhames, Patti LaBelle all pop up, but they are rarely given the chance to add anything to the film musically. What a disappointment.
Barber is clearly comfortable with the visual aspects of the filmmaking process. Hopefully, he will soon be able to match those talents with improved skills in storytelling. When this happens, we might have a filmmaker who creates some memorable escapes. Until that point, his efforts will be very hit and miss.