In music or film, solitary refinement liberates OutKast

Special to The Times

YOU'D be forgiven for jumping to the wrong conclusion about OutKast's film debut.

With both members of the Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling rap duo receiving top billing in the upcoming big-screen musical "Idlewild," logic dictates that it must be, well, an OutKast movie. An exercise in OutKast chemistry and musical solidarity a la the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night."

The film casts Antwan "Big Boi" Patton as Rooster, a hustler with a heart of gold who operates a Prohibition-era speak-easy and gets caught up in a gangster turf grab. Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin plays Percival Jenkins, a mortician turned piano player (and Rooster's childhood homeboy), who must walk a moral tightrope while struggling to reconcile his love life and musical ambitions. Those narrative arcs, however, converge only briefly. In the film as in real life, they keep face time to a minimum while their fates remain inextricably linked.

"It's not like we were filming together," says Benjamin, brushing off questions about his musical partner's acting ability. "It's only two scenes we have together in the whole movie."

Patton puts a finer point on their nonscreen chemistry.

"People are expecting a 'Beverly Hills Cop'-type of buddy movie," he says. "That's not what this is."

And so it goes with the most unconventional platinum-plus relationship in hip-hop.

"Idlewild" is set to arrive in March after 10 months of release date push-backs and cost overruns, voluminous fan conjecture about OutKast's demise and much hand-wringing by executives at both the group's LaFace/Jive Records and the film's distributor, Universal.

Keeping with the formula that resulted in 2003's boundary-pushing blockbuster, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" -- a double album born of what had been, essentially, two solo projects -- the film was conceived as a starring vehicle for both rappers, despite the disparity in their movie resumes. Benjamin has several films to his credit, including "Four Brothers" and last year's "Be Cool," while Patton had never acted before.

"The go-to is, Andre is the lead and Big is the supporting character," says the film's writer-director, Bryan Barber. "I wanted a film where both characters were leads. I balanced them screen time-wise and story-wise."

Benjamin and Patton's on-set days rarely overlapped during the movie's 3 1/2 -month shoot in Wilmington, N.C. And keeping the two visually separate is a crucial part of the film's impact, says Barber, a music video ace making his feature debut with "Idlewild."

"I didn't want to create a 'rapper movie,' " Barber says. "My first piece of advice was, 'I don't think you should do anything together. I want you guys to be characters.' Them being in a lot of scenes together -- that would have made them OutKast."

Yet being OutKast -- the pimp-strutting funkateers responsible for transcendent hits such as "Hey Ya," "I Like the Way You Move" and "Miss Jackson" that put Southern hip-hop on the map -- is precisely what got the film a green light from HBO Films. It was envisioned originally as a straight-to-cable release with a $1.5-million budget, but Universal acquired the theatrical rights last year after seeing early footage. Heavyweight actors like Terrence Howard and Ving Rhames as well as R&B; stars including Patti LaBelle and Macy Gray joined the cast. Platoons of dancers and choreographers were enlisted. And eventually, "Idlewild's" budget ballooned to $27 million.

That makes the strategy of minimizing the rappers' screen time together seem like a risky move that could undercut the film's primary selling point. But dating to their platinum-selling 1998 album "Aquemini" -- and unbeknownst to most OutKast fans -- doing their own thing has been a recipe for the group's success.

"We're both producing writers, we both control every aspect of the music," says Patton. "So we don't have to be in the same room to make music. Sometimes, to put your own vision out, you have to be in your own space."

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Working in solitude

CASE in point: the "Idlewild" soundtrack (due March 7), their first new music as a group in three years. Patton and Benjamin have recorded their respective contributions at studios in different parts of their hometown, Atlanta. As recently as two weeks ago, the album was unfinished without so much as a lead single chosen. And the rappers continued to work in solitude, meeting briefly every few days.

"I'm an only child, so I sit at home and get them to a point where I can feel good about my tracks. I never have anyone around," says Benjamin, up for a Grammy after producing two tracks on Gwen Stefani's album-of-the-year nominee "Love.Angel.Music.Baby." "You know how you sing the best while you're in the shower? That's the deal.

"I do music, put a few tracks on the CD, drop by the studio. 'Hey, Big Boi, what do you think of it?' 'I love it!' And Big Boi'd write to it. Sometimes he comes up with cool stuff."

They've been fast friends since a chance meeting at an Atlanta-area shopping mall when they were in the 10th grade, but Patton dismisses the notion that he and Benjamin have become like an old married couple, uncommunicative and staying together more out of convenience than passion. While acknowledging that their careers have veered onto separate courses in the years since "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," he likens their relationship to that of brothers.

Further, with hip-hop's shift away from the rapid vocal interplay style OutKast was known for in the early to mid-'90s, the rappers' physical distance has become even less of a hindrance to their creativity.

"It's not like on our first, second, third albums where we would tag team on rhymes in the studio," Patton says. "Now we're doing our 16, 32 bars" of music, "and however many bars you're doing, it's just you."

They haven't produced a dud; every OutKast album has enjoyed at least platinum sales. And while Benjamin refuses to close the door on the prospect of taking a break from the group or completing a solo project, Patton insists predictions of OutKast's demise are premature.

"We've gotten older. Your agenda starts to change," he says. "Dre wanted to pursue movies. I was doing my record company, Purple Ribbon Entertainment. We're pursuing different avenues of entertainment. We're still gonna do another OutKast album in a couple of years."

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What makes OutKast run

BARBER, director of many of the group's most famous videos, including "Hey Ya," "Roses" and "The Whole World," has known Patton and Benjamin since 1998, when he was a film student at Clark Atlanta University. Collaborating closely with Benjamin over the years, he has written various OutKast screenplays and shaped "Idlewild" from a disparate array of source material: stylized 1930s historical drama, ragtime-imbued hip-hop and biographical vignettes from all three men's lives.

Largely responsible for visually branding the group with his alternately ecstatic and quirkily narrative videos, he is well positioned to appraise what makes OutKast run.

"One rounds out the other, one helps the other succeed," Barber says. "Big Boi is urban. The underground. Andre is pop culture. Those things come together, pop and street, and make the perfect combination."

The latest on a short list of African American period films, Barber calls "Idlewild" a "gumbo" of genres. It mixes shoot-'em-up action, melodrama and musical comedy to achieve something he describes as a "feel-good movie like 'Chicago' or 'Moulin Rouge.' "

For Barber, the penultimate scene of the film -- one of the few in which Benjamin and Patton appear together -- crystallizes the partnership.

"It's a scene shot from behind, as they're walking out the door," Barber says. "They say goodbye, but then the two of them walk away together.

"You know they're each gonna be successful and they'll always be the friends that they were when they started. For the people that know those guys and their struggle who see it, it's kinda heavy. You feel their growth. And their love."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction OutKast songs -- An article about the duo OutKast in Sunday Calendar misidentified three song titles: They are "Hey Ya!," not "Hey Ya"; "The Way You Move," not "I Like the Way You Move"; and "Ms. Jackson," not "Miss Jackson." For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 05, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction OutKast songs -- An article about the duo OutKast last Sunday incorrectly identified three song titles: They are "Hey Ya!," not "Hey Ya"; "The Way You Move," not "I Like the Way You Move"; and "Ms. Jackson," not "Miss Jackson."
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