Let me get right to the point: Idlewild (better known, perhaps, as "that OutKast movie") is a fantastically creative film that could -- and should -- garner a bevy of Oscar nominations. I don't know why there hasn't been bigger hooplah about this film leading up to its release date this weekend; given the media frenzy surrounding the campy Snakes on a Plane, you might think that a film like Idlewild could stir up at least a moderate buzzing sound.
Here's a brief history of the film: Writer-director Bryan Barber, best known up to now for his prodigious talents as a musical director for OutKast, Christina Aguilera and other artists, and OutKast dynamic duo André Benjamin (aka André 3000) and Antwan A. Patton (aka Big Boi), had been talking about making a musical set in the 1930s Deep South since OutKast's 1998 album, Aquemini. They wanted to make a movie that was integrally built around the music. Barber took a short film treatment based on OutKast's 2003 album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to Mosaic Media Group, which was set to produce the movie for HBO Films -- before the album exploded into a mega-hit. Once Speakerboxxx took off, Mosaic and HBO sold worldwide rights for the film to Universal, and OutKast's increased bankability as artists allowed Barber, Benjamin and Patton to really get creative.
Idlewild (named for the town in which it is set) tells the story of two friends from opposite sides of the track: Rooster (Patton), the flashy son of a bootlegger who grows up to be manager of a wild speakeasy, and Percival (Benjamin), the introverted, talented son of a domineering mortician who lives in a world of music that swirls in his head. Rooster and Percy have little in common but their passion for music -- a passion that starts when the boys are eight, with young Rooster trading record albums for the keys to the funeral home's hearse, which he uses for bootleg runs. Later in life, Rooster finds himself married to the lovely and patient Zora (Malinda Williams) and father to a passel of children. He loves his family, but is rather overwhelmed by his obligations to them. Rooster supports his family (and his own need for freedom and attention) in style by managing and performing at The Church -- a speakeasy dive that is everything but holy -- where he gets Percy a job as piano player.
Rooster spends his free time dallying with the dance girls and the owner's girlfriend, Rose, while Percy plays piano, covers for Rooster when he's late, and steadfastly waits to meet a woman who's worth his time and attention. Enter Miss Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a sultry songstress touring the South who's come to Idlewild to grace The Church with her talent, bringing light and hope into Percy's lonely life for the first time. Meanwhile, an act of betrayal by Rooster's childhood friend Trumpy (Terrence Howard) simultaneously takes out The Church's owner (leaving Rooster as the new owner by default) and puts Trumpy and his gang of mobsters in control of the hooch flowing into the joint. Rooster starts feeling the heat of his dangerous situation and his wife's fraying patience, while Percy dips his toe in the heady waters of romance and unleashes his creativity as his muse inspires him.
There are a bevy of big stars scattered across this film of whom I would have liked to have seen more: Cicely Tyson, Patti LaBelle, Ben Vereen, Macy Gray and Ving Rhames all grace the screen with admirable performances. Howard gives a standout performance as the morally bereft Trumpy, while Patton and Benjamin (benefiting, perhaps, from the coaching of Vereen, who is said to have become the de facto acting coach for the younger actors on the set) both do themselves proud; Benjamin's work as the shy, quietly tormented Percival is particularly noteworthy.
Idlewild is, of course, a musical, hearkening back to the style of Vincente Minnelli's swing-dance extravaganza Cabin in the Sky (1943), but updated with music that only OutKast could create. Benjamin and Patton are known for creating complex, layered music that blends genres, and the music for Idlewild is no exception, crossing the line from hip-hop to classic blues to swing, while making it all sound like it always belonged together. These gentlemen are the gourmet chefs of the music world, tossing a bit of this, a pinch of that, into the pot, stirring it just so, and coming up with something completely unlike anything ever done before. The OutKast influence and merging of styles and genres is evident throughout the film, especially in the way the music is worked intricately into the story, and in the film's design. Details like Rooster's talking flask (the alcoholic equivalent of the little red devil on your shoulder) and the animated musical notes that Percival sees on his sheet music serve not as gratuitously clever side dishes, but more as spices that enhance the flavor of the characters, revealing to us bits and pieces of what's inside their heads.
The musical numbers are vibrant and stunning, showing off both Barber's skills as a director of cutting-edge music videos and award-winning choreographer Hinton Battle's breathtaking dance sequences (Hinton worked his combination of hip-hop, swing and break dancers for weeks in the North Carolina heat, putting them through an intensive "swop" dancing boot camp, and that effort shows in the quality of the dancing). Interesting camera angles, clever use of slo-mo to show off some of the more intricate moves, dancing girls on stage, "swop" dancers in the audience, all combine headily to pull the audience into the magic of the moment. The set design, visual design and costumes are all amazing as well; washed-out, tinted hues of the scenes outside the speakeasy give the film a vintage feel, while the scenes inside The Church, much like the club scenes in Moulin Rogue, explode with saturated, brilliant color. The Church, in spite of being located in rural Georgia, has all the pomp and circumstance of a Paris nightclub -- all the better to show off Rooster and contrast with the club's owner, country-boy-who-made-it-big "Sunshine" Ace (Faizon Love), who lumbers through the club, elegant watch fob dangling from the pocket of his good ol' boy overalls.
The film's one weakness is its script, which was written around and for the music, weaving semi-autobiographical stories and memories with ideas about life in the more genteel 1930s. Barber, who has said the film has more in common with Purple Rain than Singin' in the Rain on the movie musical family tree, wrote the script to buttress a story told through song and dance, and as such, the storyline isn't terribly tight. But you know what? Neither are the storylines in just about any beloved musical you might name. Musicals exist to draw you into their world through the combined power and beauty of song and visuals, costume and dancing, and all are spectacular here. Much of the music was written as the movie was being filmed, and Benjamin and Patton wore triple hats -- starring, coproducing and supervising the music. If the story isn't spectacular on its own merits, neither is it the worst storyline to come out of Hollywood in the last decade.
It has two main characters who are interesting and compelling, a storyline that draws them together without feeling contrived, a nice little romance, an interesting conflict with an intriguing bad guy, and themes of loss, grief, and redemption. Amidst all the moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the lack creativity in Hollywood today, Idlewild stands out as a ground-breaking, clever, original musical that crosses audience demographics as it does genres. It's not a "black" film, in spite of its African-American cast; it's not just for old folks reminiscing about the good old days, in spite of being set in the 1930s; it's not a show tune film, in spite of being a musical that would make a spectacular Broadway play. Idlewild is a bit of all these things, and more, and it's a film that should appeal to a wide audience, once people figure out exactly what it is. This is exactly the kind of movie audiences need to get behind; Universal stepped out of the sequel/remake/comic book box to produce this incredibly original and energetic film, and I hope that movie-goers will put up at the box office to support the kind of originality they keep complaining no longer exists.