OutKast's 'Idlewild' is sadly out of step
Duo's talent lost in shuffle of this jumbled musical
The big show-stopping number in ``Idlewild," OutKast's eagerly awaited musical escapade, is a brightly lit throwback to a sequence from an old Busby Berkeley picture. The film is set in 1935, and Andre ``Andre 3000" Benjamin glides around a large shiny set full of jiggling female dancers. He sings and tap dances.
The camerawork is steady, the editing patient, the choreography playful. It's a zippy and inspired piece of moviemaking. But there's one problem. It's playing under the closing credits.
After the nearly two hours that precede it, that sequence feels like a glamorous dream, one that ``Idlewild" should have been 100-odd minutes earlier. Instead, it's a sludgy, badly photographed, poorly edited bungle whose musical numbers never pop.
Neither do its two stars, Benjamin and his artistic partner, Antwan ``Big Boi" Patton. They play musicians in a Georgia speakeasy called Church, and, as on their best-selling double-CD, 2003's ``Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," the duo spends very little time together.
Percival (Benjamin) is a mortician's son whose true passion is songwriting. He lives with his daddy in a bedroom with a wall covered in cuckoo clocks. Percival plays piano in Church's house band and starts a thing with the just-arrived beauty who calls herself a singer. She's played by Paula Patton, a woman whose skin is the color of café au lait and whose acting is decaf Beyoncé.
While these two spend the entire movie gearing up for her big number (not a showstopper, mind you -- at least, not in a good way), Rooster (Big Boi ) is trying to keep a slick gangster (Terrence Howard) from taking the nightclub's profits. Rooster is also trying to keep his fed-up wife (Malinda Williams) from taking their five kids and moving in with her momma. (Rooster, like all Roosters before him, drinks, cheats, and struts around in flashy suits.)
Written and directed by music-video maker Bryan Barber, the film is a disappointing collision of Eddie Murphy's ``Harlem Nights" and Baz Luhrmann's ``Moulin Rouge." That's too bad, since the movie ``Idlewild" sporadically evokes, with its fierce cast and would-be jumping musical sequences, is Vincente Minnelli's ``Cabin in the Sky."
Instead, a lot of wasted talent washes up. In addition to Howard, who spends what feels like his first 20 minutes standing in silence behind Ving Rhames, the cast includes Ben Vereen, Patti LaBelle, Paula Jai Parker (as enjoyably uncouth as ever), and Cicely Tyson, who steals her second movie this year. (Perhaps you caught her porch sermon in ``Madea's Family Reunion.") Honestly, though, nobody in this movie out performs his hair. In a Hollywood first, there are enough marcelled waves, perms, S-curls, weaves, wigs, and blow-outs to constitute a black-hair convention.
You wish the best for OutKast onscreen, because musically they've been so good to us for the past 10 years. But neither their songs nor their personalities come to life here. Big Boi at least makes something cool out of his limited emotional range. Benjamin, meanwhile, is often caught looking gravely serious, the way Prince did in ``Purple Rain," a movie it hurts to mention under these circumstances. What Prince lacked in screen presence (he had almost none), he made up for in electric stage appeal. ``Idlewild," meanwhile, is not OutKast at its musical best.
The songs are taken predominately from ``Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," but they're not ones around which you build a musical. The duo released a n ``Idlewild" soundtrack album this week, but little of that new music is featured prominently in the production numbers, all of which Broadway veteran Hinton Battle has choreographed with moxie. Too bad the movie is so over-edited that it's tough to appreciate his work.
In fact, sometimes it's hard to figure out what's happening at all. At some point, Big Boi is making a fast getaway in a speeding car. As he drives, it looks like he's singing the song ``Church," but the camera and cutting can't keep still long enough to prove it. Musicals in the 1970s had a similar on-the-run style, but the best of them knew when to stop and let a sequence envelop you.
In his music-video work, Barber is rarely this careless. True, his videos also suffer from too much cutting, but they're tight and fun confections.
One of his best happens to be for OutKast. ``Hey Ya!" was a manic ``Ed Sullivan Show" tribute, with Benjamin cloned into a Sly and the Family Stone-style band playing on a toothsome spearmint-colored soundstage.
LISTEN TO THE ``IDLEWILD" SOUNDTRACK Check out audio clips at www.boston.com/clips.
In that video, the girls in the audience have hilarious nervous breakdowns watching Benjamin, who's utterly alive and sexy. Those same girls would be scratching their heads over ``Idlewild." Barber and OutKast haven't found a way to harness their natural wit and energy into a feature-length production. But that glorious closing-credits sequence suggests they shouldn't stop trying.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.