3 stars (out of four)
Musicians and the movies have been married since the dawn of sound, from Al Jolson through big bands, Elvis, the Beatles, Prince and Eminem. Now comes OutKast, the team made up of Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000, and Antwan Patton, a.k.a. Big Boi. Their schoolyard friendship, contrasting sensibilities, rags-to-riches journey and turbulent, sensational partnership unmistakably form the template for "Idlewild," about a contrasting but conjoined pair of Depression-era speakeasy musicians.
But the real star may well be novice director Bryan Barber (a veteran of OutKast videos), whose pastiche, visual playfulness and genre-bending make "Idlewild" an engaging, original movie musical. It turns all sorts of pop cultural icons on their heads and delivers a smart commentary on race and class in 20th Century America.
Tweaking, deconstructing and referencing the likes of "Cabin in the Sky" and the '30s gangster shoot-'em-up, "Idlewild" is both a bouncy musical parable and a riff on racial identity and American myth-making. Set in an imaginary Georgia town called Idlewild, a kind of black Brigadoon plopped magically down on pre-civil rights Southern soil, the movie boasts gentry, common folk, singers, music-makers, gamblers, whores and pimps, all played by African-Americans, including the perfumed swells who glimpse the earthier shenanigans from a porch of white columns, albeit those of the local mortuary.
Aiding Barber is the terrific work of choreographer Hinton Battle, delivering a ferocious, contemporary update of swing and bridging the gap between quick-take MTV flash and the longer needs of cinematic dancing--a hybrid that works better here than in the frenetic, overrated "Chicago."
The story evokes an age-old Hollywood trope, telling of two Depression-era kids, Percival (Benjamin) and Rooster (Patton), the former a studious good guy and the latter a precocious con man/womanizer more mischievous than sinning. They're linked by a love of show, practiced in the free-for-all boites of Prohibition nightlife, in particular the Church, a sardonically named charnel house of gangmen, molls, entertainers and lawlessness.
After a brief bio of their growing up, we join them in young adulthood, when Rooster inherits the club from the murdered Sunshine, wonderfully played as a raspy, treacherous hyena by Faizon Love. Rooster vies with bootleggers led by Trumpy (Terrence Howard), while Percival plays onstage piano and falls for the club's latest star, a silken beauty billed as the Angel of Davenport (Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan).
Director Barber encases his message inside an R-rated Disney cartoon--Rooster's flask features a talking rooster, Percival's bed is overseen by a choir of singing cuckoo clocks and animation erupts repeatedly, including gangland bullets heading toward the camera in slow motion. (In one scene, a palmetto roach flits across the set, contributing its own unsettling mute commentary.)
There are downsides. In evoking so many icons, everything from "Winesburg, Ohio" and "Look Homeward, Angel" to "Shoot the Piano Player" and "Six Feet Under," Barber waltzes with cliche. The music, while slyly inserting hip-hop into the Depression, is one of the film's least impressive virtues. And although their presence underscores the movie's sweeping embrace of the African-American entertainment legacy, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Patti LaBelle and Macy Gray get little more than cameos.
But Benjamin and Patton come off as worthy actors, part of a restraint and a cohesion in a film that could have devolved into Ken Russell overkill. In this Gothic fairy tale there's soulful sociology, with glimpses of occasional white faces who diffidently gaze from a distance. That's nowhere more telling than when they're the detached audience watching Benjamin's Cab Calloway extravaganza during the movie's credits.
"Idlewild" is instructive without being preachy, avoiding a pat happy ending but delivering a sober message of hope, healing and redemption through art.
Written and directed by Bryan Barber; photographed by Pascal Rabaud; edited by Anne Goursand; production design by Charles Breen; produced by Charles Roven, Robert Guralnick. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (for violence, sexuality, nudity and language).
Percival - Andre Benjamin
Rooster - Antwan Patton
Angel - Paula Patton
Trumpy - Terrence HowardCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times