Friday August 28, 1998
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is not quite the question asked by this up-tempo, relentlessly cartoonish biopic focusing on the tangled romantic life of an early rock star. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love With Frankie Lymon" is more like it.
As the lead vocalist for the Teenagers, Lymon (played by Larenz Tate) helped turn "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" into one of the biggest hits of 1956. He followed it with "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent," "I Want You to Be My Girl" and other songs characterized by his trademark piercing high voice.
Though this success was short-lived, Lymon on a personal level was apparently quite the boy who couldn't say no. When he died of a drug overdose in 1968, just past his 25th birthday, he left behind a marital history worthy of a man several times his age.
It is in fact three wives who face the camera, one after another, each claiming to be Lymon's true love and legal spouse. Here's the glamorous Zola Taylor (Halle Berry), a member of the Platters, one of early rock's supergroups. Next comes the feisty Elizabeth Waters (Vivica A. Fox), a prison-hardened former shoplifter and prostitute. Last in line is Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon), a demure, well-bred Southern educator.
This trio first meets as a group in 1985 in the offices of Morris Levy (Paul Mazursky), the shrewd operator whose company released Lymon's hits. When trading "Miss Thing"-type insults doesn't clear the air, a lawsuit to determine the identity of the true widow and heir to Lymon's royalties becomes inevitable.
Though other people testify in the trial, notably Little Richard playing himself and saying things like "I am the originator, the emancipator, the motivator," most of "Fools" is told in flashback as each woman takes the stand and relates her portion of Lymon's life.
The Taylor sections are the most fun, largely because Taylor knew Lymon when he was at his performing peak and director Gregory Nava, whose last film was "Selena," does an energetic job of re-creating the exuberant rock stage shows of the period.
By the time Waters connected with Lymon, he had become a junkie, and she ended up ruining herself trying to pay for his drugs. As a been-around woman never at a loss for an insulting put-down ("He dropped you like a whore's panties" is one example), Fox gives "Fools' " most engaging performance. Unfortunately, she's also involved in the film's least convincing area, the jarring sections that deal with the troubles brought on by Lymon's habit.
Last to the altar is Eagle, the sister of one of the singer's Army buddies. The Lymon she knew was more of a homebody than a homeboy--someone so different than the man the other two women married that, as someone sarcastically comments, it "seems like anything in a skirt was Frankie's type."
Paralleling the spectacle of these three women battling over Lymon's heritage is the way different elements of this film, directed by Nava from a script by Tina Andrews, are in conflict with one another.
Yes, the three women are gorgeous and talented, and it is fun to see them having at one another. Also a plus is the entertainment value of the film's infectious classic rock soundtrack, which (besides the Teenagers hits sung by Lymon) includes songs like "The Great Pretender," "Try a Little Tenderness" and "Heat Wave."
Hampering this on the negative side, besides the film's awkwardness with its dark moments, is an inability to provide more than the most superficial look at anything. Nava, whose credits besides "Selena" include "My Family" and "El Norte," is given to pitching things as broadly as the law allows, and what "Fools" is most reminiscent of is love story comics from the 1950s with titles like "Realistic Romances" and "Teen-Age Temptations."
It's a mark of how shallow "Fools" is that even as gifted an actor as Tate (excellent in "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents") can't turn Lymon into anything more than a cipher. Half adroit flatterer, half emotional infant, the film's Lymon offers hardly a clue as to why his real-life counterpart was so irresistible to women.
And while "Fools" ends with an on-screen disclaimer that it is "a dramatization based upon certain historical events and the lives of real people," its inability to incorporate key elements of the real Lymon story hampers it dramatically.
For part of Lymon's appeal to women was how uncommonly young he was; the singer's first hit came before he was 14, younger than most romantic leads can play. Similarly, one of the unexamined factors in his turning to hard drugs was apparently the difficulties caused by his voice beginning to change.
Though Nava's soapy directing style makes "Fools" watchable enough in a campy way, the film's unsophisticated nature undermines its better qualities. Absent the kind of star performance Jennifer Lopez gave in "Selena" (and that film's cleaner, more direct story line), cornball dramaturgy can take audiences only so far and not one note further.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love, 1998. R, for language and some sexuality. A Rhino Films Production. Director Gregory Nava. Producers Paul Hall, Stephen Nemeth. Executive producers Gregory Nava, Mark Allan, Harold Bronson. Screenplay by Tina Andrews. Cinematographer Ed Lachman. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costumes Elisabetta Beraldo. Music Stephen James Taylor. Production design Cary White. Art director John Chicester. Set designers Clare Scarpulla, Michael Bernard. Set decorator Jackie Carr. Sound Veda Campell. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Halle Berry as Zola Taylor. Vivica A. Fox as Elizabeth Waters. Lela Rochon as Emira Eagle. Larenz Tate as Frankie Lymon.