Dir: Bryan Barber, US, 2006, 121mins
Cast: Andre Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000), Antwan A. Patton (known as Big Boi), Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Faizon Love, Paula Jai Parker, Macy Gray, Ving Rhames, Ben Vereen, Patti LaBelle
Review by Sian Thatcher
You’re hip-hop royalty, had international hits and have risen through the ranks to a position where you can do just about whatever you want. After numerous hit songs, albums, awards, what do you do next? It has to be the Hollywood blockbuster…
Well, international superstar rappers OutKast have indeed taken a new look at the musical genre in their debut cinematic offering. Their stylized, over-the-top film forms the next segment of their oeuvre – almost their Purple Rain – and, like the rest of their work, the film is surreal, fantastical and distinctly OutKast.
Set in the 1930s southern speakeasy, Idlewild tells the tale of two frustrated performers, Percival (Benjamin), the club's shy piano player, and Rooster (Patton), the club's showy lead performer and manager, their lives and loves and pistol fights with shady gangsters.
It is the feature film-directing debut for award-winning director and longtime OutKast music video collaborator, Bryan Barber, and includes dance sequences choreographed by legendary performer and three-time Tony winner Hinton Battle.
The film is made by the best in the industry and they have spared nothing on the detail, the costumes, sets or talent – the whole film wallows in the glow of excess. The music is, as you would expect, incredible – it is bizarre and soulful, fusing influences from the ‘30s – the swing and blues – with modern hip-hop and r‘n’b into a smooth eclectic soundtrack, also by OutKast and released under the same name.
The only problem arises, again as you would expect, with the plot. It is loose, predictable and the writers seem to think adding quotes from a Shakespeare play throughout the film makes it artistic – it doesn’t.
But Benjamin is sensitive and touching as Percival, Patton loud and outgoing as Rooster – although more comfortable performing the music numbers than acting perhaps. Playing roundabout versions of themselves, the film shows the difference between the two performers – Patton as the more mainstream performer, while Benjamin is the dandy – eccentric and flamboyant.
When the music and dance scenes start, it’s obvious everyone is in their element – MTV moments set in the 1930s, on a big screen. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of these moments, that the film doesn’t get quite as surreal and ‘OutKast’ as you’d like. It’s always a fleeting moment of great music and superbly choreographed dance scenes before the film returns to its rather mundane plot and plods on through it.
However, it is well acted and there are genuinely touching moments between Percival and Angel, the diva he falls for, played by young Whitney look-a-like Paula Patton, but most of the characters are too under-developed to be interesting. And those that do stand out – Trumpy (Howard), Taffy (Gray) and Angel (Patton) – aren’t given big enough parts.
Many would have expected this to be a vanity film, self-indulgent and fairly crude. And to a certain degree, that’s true – this is basically an opportunity for Benjamin and Patton to get dressed up and play themselves in the Prohibition era. But it’s still a worthy attempt at a film and if you enjoy their music and style, it’s definitely worth a look, but this attempt isn’t ready to stand up shoulder to shoulder with the old Hollywood musicals or even the modern ones, such as Chicago and Moulin Rouge.
The music is outstanding and if the plot was anywhere near as inventive and didn’t rely on age-old Hollywood cliches, then this film would have been pretty close to perfect. As it stands, take a swig from a carefully concealed hip flask and engulf yourself in the music and exuberant dance routines – just try not to think too much about the plot.