The Good: Decent music, Good direction, Decent acting
The Bad: Unsurprising characters, plot, Repetition of Shakespeare theme throughout movie
The Basics: With decent - if recycled - music, good direction and generally good acting, Idlewild succeeds more than it fails.
I cannot recall a musical group in recent memory that has so thoroughly capitalized on its success than OutKast. With the success of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (reviewed here!), OutKast members Andre Benjamin and Big Boi (Antwan Patton) stretched out into other realms. Benjamin began a serious acting career with movies like Four Brothers, which was the stated reason their successful album was essentially two solo projects stuck together. Together, they worked on a musical, which became Idlewild. I'm still unsure how that worked as the sole writing and directoral credit belongs to Bryan Barber.
Percival and Rooster are childhood friends who have grown up influenced by smugglers and bootleggers and during the Prohibition years, they work a speakeasy in Idlewild, Georgia. Percival is an artist; a piano player and music writer. Rooster is a businessman and seems set to inherit the club when one of the owners, Spats, decides its time to get out of the business. Unfortunately for Rooster, Spats' protege Trumpy decides to make his move, killing Spats and another gangster to forcibly take over the club. Rooster starts a resistance against Trumpy (by doing such things as smuggling liquor from another source) and Percival joins forces with a new singer, Angel, and the two dream of leaving Idlewild and finding peace and success in a bigger city. And it all comes together in a big, violent series of encounters that involve some decent music and big dance numbers.
This is not, classically, a musical; the scenes between where characters break into song are much more protracted than the actual musical numbers. Instead, this is a drama with a couple of musical numbers, most of which are confined to the stage of the club anyway (as opposed to characters revealing themselves through songs or expressing themselves to one another musically). Most of the music is actually taken from OutKast's multiplatinum Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which I thought was odd because the impression I had going into this was that OutKast was trying to do a completely original musical. On the plus side, the duo uses some of their better songs from the two-disc set as the musical backdrop for this movie (like "Bow Tie" and "The Rooster").
There is some original music for this piece, like a song about the fear of clocks, but most of the new music is unmemorable. The thing is, Idlewild has a lot of elements that fit well with the concept of a music video and director Bryan Barber seems to have a good vision for the sound of OutKast. So, for example, when Percival is singing about a fear of clocks and time, he lays in bed with cuckoo clocks going off all along a wall above him. Whenever the voice singing in response to his lines is a backing vocal, the birds and other ornaments from the clocks pick up the melody. It's clever and would make for an excellent, truly inspired, music video. Unfortunately, that song seems woefully out of place in Idlewild and it's never quite followed up on in the story.
But Barber does have an inventive directoral style that works fairly well throughout the movie. Percival sees music as a comic strip and Barber animates the drawings Percival creates between the notes on his sheets of music. They interact with Percival and it's a clever, well-executed technique. Similarly, the flask Rooster carries on him has a rooster that talks to him, encouraging him toward vice and alcoholism. Barber's limited use of this works quite well, as well, creating a strangely memorable character out of a bootlegger's flask.
What doesn't work is the camera techniques at the opening of the movie. As Percival gives a monologue establishing the backstory of Rooster and himself, characters freeze and their heads expand and the technique is cheap and silly. Barber tries to rely on a tired visual trick to engage the audience and it fails to impress the viewer.
Equally unimpressive are the roles of most of the women in Idlewild. Taffy, the singer Rooster is having an affair with, is around solely to service him, it seems (and insult Angel). She is never given genuine depth. Similarly, Rooster's wife Zora and his whole family seems tacked on. In writing, there's the adage "if the conflict is easily resolved, it wasn't much of a conflict to begin with." Periodically throughout the movie, Zora pops up to get upset with Rooster for sleeping around, lying and running an illegal club. She leaves him and at the very end of the movie, Rooster approaches her to simply get back together and the whole subplot feels tacked on, like the writer needed something to flesh out Rooster beyond his business and his on-stage performance. But, because of the resolution to it, it never seems like a compelling conflict.
Conversely, the Angel/Percival storyline works quite well. Angel has a secret that Percival uncovers rather easily and he displays genuine character by trying to save her. Angel becomes a conduit for Percival to follow his dreams and she offers the piano player the most realistic chance of leaving his lifestyle in Idlewild behind. And while there are moments Angel shows real insight, most of them serve the character of Percival. Angel is perceptive . . . about analyzing Percival and his fears and conditions. Beyond that, she has little genuine character outside the secret she is hiding.
Andre Benjamin plays Percival and he once again proves his acting ability. Here he plays a man who is uncertain and lives with a great deal of fear. The son of a mortician, raised in a funeral home, Percival's art has always come second. Benjamin plays him well as a man beaten down by those around him. He slumps through much of the movie and as his character becomes more confident and improves his station in life, his body language changes as well.
Antwan Patton does well playing the businessman/performer Rooster. The role has very little in the way of growth for the character, merely Rooster becoming the de jure owner of the club, as opposed to the de facto one. As a result, Patton's best performances in the movie are in his on-stage performances, which is not an acting stretch at all; he is a performer. And here he plays one in a movie. Wow.
Supporting performances by Paula Patton (Angel), Terrence Howard (Trumpy) and Ving Rhames (Spats) all flesh out the world of Idlewild quite well. Despite the limitations of the characters - for example, Trumpy is very much the archetypal gangster villain - the actors use their time on screen quite well.
Throughout the entire movie, Percival provides, through a voice-over a paraphrase of Shakespeare's immortal soliloquy from The Tragedy Of MacBeth, about all the world being a stage and the people in it but actors. This recurring monologue is distracting, pointless and somewhat insulting to the viewer.
In the end, though, it's not enough to sink this. It might not be the best drama in the world, but it's solidly entertaining and that's enough sometimes.
For other movies based upon Shakespeare works or with Shakespearean aspects to them, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
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© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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