Idlewild -- the oft-delayed, much-anticipated musical from best-selling Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast -- is, as they often say, a very movie movie. There's about 12 different films swimming around in it: Purple Rain, The Cotton Club, Chicago, Under the Cherry Moon, 42nd Street,Harlem Nights -- but it's also got nods to everything from Busby Berkeley musicals to '70s Black gangster films, art cinema to Some Like it Hot. Idlewild isn't coherent -- and it doesn't have a lot to say on the rare occasions it does make sense -- but it's also exuberant and wildly stylish. There's a question of who Idlewild is for -- the older audience who could appreciate its dance numbers and retro-style might be put off by the hip-hop elements; the kids who like hip-hop might be confused about why two of the most modern rappers in the game have set their big-screen debut in the 1930s. But that, frankly, just means more fun for those of us eager to take a chance on something different.
Deep in the heart of Prohibition-era Georgia, the small town of Idlewild is sleepy -- except at The Church, the raucous nightclub-and-cabaret owned by Ace (Faizon Love) and supplied by Spats (Ving Rhames). The entertainment at The Church is a pretty wild affair -- there's a full band, anchored by singer Rooster (Antwan A. Patton, a.k.a. Big Boi) and pianist Percival (André Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre3000). Spats is retiring, though, and wants to enjoy the good life -- including handing control of the local illegal booze empire to his right-hand man, Trumpy (Terrence Howard). Just as Trumpy is acting to ensure that the succession goes his way, noted singer Angel Daveport (Paula Patton) arrives from back East to play an extended engagement at The Church. Rooster must find a way to take control of The Church, even as he's trying to be a man to his wife and children; Percival has to summon up the courage to stop living in the shadow of his mortician father (Ben Vereen) and strike out as an artist. And plot-wise, that's it: Too much more story would simply get in the way of the dance numbers and musical sequences. Director and writer Bryan Barber has long been a confederate of Outkast -- having crafted the videos for "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move," among other Outkast singles -- and it's interesting how he nicely dovetails the personalities of Outkast on-screen in their character arcs: Swaggering, Stagolee-styled Rooster has to drop the thug life in order to become a more responsible father and husband and business owner; Percival has to stop living mildly and start living wildly.
Rooster and Percival don't have much in common outside of music, but that's their lifetime bond: Barber clearly doesn't mind having art imitate life in this instance, as reports have it that Patton and Benjamin have a similar working relationship as Outkast. (The multi-platinum Outkast release Speakerboxx/The Love Below wasn't a collective effort; it sounds like, and pretty much is, two solo records put out under one name.) If you expect plenty of scenes between Big Boi and Andre3000 in Idlewild, you'll be disappointed.
But who could be disappointed by a film so popping with visual energy, so full of lustrous colors and textures, so eager to please? Idlewild was funded by HBO films as a purely speculative exercise -- Hey, let's see if Outkast want to make a movie -- and while it's modestly budgeted at $25 million (in Hollywood, $25 million is 'modest'), every penny is up on the screen. Most notable and exciting are the dance numbers, which incorporate elements of swing and hip-hop dancing under the choreography of Hilton Battle (the film's credits refer to the movie's dance style as 'Swop' --a silly-sounding neologism, but it works nonetheless). Barber, cinematographer Pascal Rabaud and editor Anne Goursaud capture the dance numbers with slow-motion intimacy and whip-pan excitement; Idlewild doesn't spruce up conventional dance numbers with camera tricks; rather, it captures the power of exceptional dance numbers through camera truths. That's not to say there aren't special effects in Idlewild; there are, from Rooster's talking flask to Percival's perception of musical notes as doodled stick-figures that come to life on the page for him. But the dance numbers are unadorned by any such tricks, and the film is better for it.
On an acting level, Idlewild is simply okay -- Patton is a charismatic presence with good stage presence and a well-tuned sense of timing, while Benjamin has an aloof-but-goofy air that gets him through his scenes. As the female lead, Paula Patton makes a striking debut -- physically, she resembles a young Lena Horne, and the film plays that resemblance up - but she has the kind of charm that makes the classic musical arc of her character a pleasure to watch instead of a chore.
Idlewild is a pure musical fantasy -- while some will question the bumping, jumping shuffle-rhythms of Outkast's very modern style of rap set in a fantasy '30s, it's not anything unprecedented. If '30s Chicago can be brought to life with the rat-a-tat songs of Kander and Ebb, or the forthcoming spectacle of Marie Antoinette dancing around Versailles to the surf-guitar of Bow Wow Wow's 'I Want Candy,' then I can accept Barber, Patton and Benjamin fast-forwarding and rewinding through a highlight reel of the past seventy years of African-American popular music and culture in a '30s setting.
Idlewild costs a bit on cliché -- before the impending showdown with Trumpy, Rooster is given an object that makes every moviegoer in the audience roll their eyes, while Angel's fate is made abundantly clear in the leaden delivery of a single line -- but it also lives on-screen in a way so few films do, exploding with vitality and enthusiasm. Idlewild challenges two worlds -- Hollywood and Hip-Hop -- that can, in their way, be hidebound by conservatism and convention and gives them both a good shake. That alone makes Idlewild exciting; that alone makes Idlewild worth seeing; that alone makes you wonder what Outkast and Barber might try next.