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The Cotton Club meets Harlem Nights

If you heard that multi-platinum and Grammy Award-winning duo OutKast (André 3000 and Big Boi) had decided to headline a feature film, chances are you’d think it was just another vanity project (e.g., Prince and Purple Rain). If you looked up the writer/director of said feature film, Bryan Barber, you’d learn that Barber, a longtime music video director, has directed several OutKast videos, further suggesting that Idlewild is indeed a vanity project. It is, but only in part. Largely because Barber has put together a straightforward but nonetheless compelling period musical, albeit one that relies heavily on OutKast’s output.

Idlewild, Georgia, 1930s. Childhood friends, Percival (Andre Benjamin), a mortician/piano player and Rooster (Antwan Patton, aka Big Boi), a gambler/singer, spend their nights performing at the “Church”, a raucous speakeasy that features a live band, singers, dancers, and circus performers. Talented but introspective, Percival prefers to stay out of the limelight. Rooster is more than happy with booze, women, and performing in front of appreciative audiences. Trouble is, Rooster’s married to Zora (Malinda Williams), and she’s growing tired of his nightlife, even if it brings their family of six, including four children, food on the table during the still ongoing Depression.

The Church is owned and operated by Ace (Faizon Love), but Ace owes a monthly cut to Rooster’s sometime benefactor, Spats (Ving Rhames), for providing the Church with illegal alcohol. Spats lieutenant/right-hand man/enforcer, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), is eager to move up, take control, and be his own boss. Before long, The Church changes hands, leaving Rooster as the de facto owner/operator and with a sizeable debt to Trumpy. Percival and Rooster’s fortunes change for the better with the arrival of Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a famous singer. While Rooster holds off Trumpy, Percival and Angel develop a romantic relationship.

Story wise, Idlewild follows a well-worn path down to the final confrontation between Rooster, Percival, and Trumpy and his men. Which means Barber isn’t above manipulating audience sympathies by relying heavily on the tropes of the movie musical combined with the conventions of the period gangster genre (speakeasies, bootlegging, sociopathic characters). Barber isn’t reticent about indulging in periodic outbreaks of graphic violence either.

Tropes and conventions aside, moviegoers will see Idlewild for the dance and music numbers, all of them handled energetically by Barber and his collaborators, including OutKast (of course) and the choreographer, Tony Battle (Dreamgirls). Barber is smart enough to let moviegoers see, hear, and feel the music numbers (as opposed to say Baz Luhrmann’s over-edited Moulin Rouge). And with Barber borrowing heavily from OutKast’s output it’s not hard to imagine some moviegoers feeling like they’re watching a string of music videos together. They are, at least, in part, but with multiple, overlapping storylines threading through the music numbers.

Performance wise, the standouts are Benjamin, who may just have a future as an actor apart from his musical career and Paula Patton, who acquits herself well during the quieter, character-driven moments and the show-stopping numbers. Antwan Patton has a showier role and while he’s always watchable, he seems occasionally lost during the dramatic scenes. Two way-over-the-top performances, Faizon Love, and Jackie Long (as Monk), tend to grate whenever they’re on screen. Thankfully, Love exits stage left early on and Long’s screen time decreases over time. Singer/songwriter Macy Gray has one musical number early on and a more-or-less supporting role from then on.

All in all, Idlewild doesn’t offer much story or character wise (and some of the performances lack subtlety), but once you sit back and get into the flow of the expertly arranged and performed musical numbers, the movie becomes, in the best tradition of movie musicals, a pleasure to watch and hear.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars