When Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, better known as Andre 3000 and Big Boi of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group Outkast, decided to branch out into film they didn’t look to MTV for ideas. Instead they cherry picked inspiration from a variety of sources such as Moulin Rouge, hip-hip culture, Warner’s cartoons, Six Feet Under and gangster movies of the 1930s, creating a frenetic fusion of old and new.
Idlewild, named for the Georgia town in which then action takes place, is both rooted in the past and very forward-looking. Hip-hop collides with jazz, dancers mix the jitterbug with break dancing and the star of this 1930s road show is a rapper. Think of it as a remix of The Cotton Club.
Set against the backdrop of a 1930s southern speakeasy, Benjamin and Patton play Percival and Rooster, friends since childhood, despite the differences in their personalities. Percival is the shy son of a mortician who plays piano at the speakeasy. Rooster on the other hand is the flamboyantly dressed star of the show who flirts with all the women in the movie except his wife. When a mob boss is slain by his underling (a terrific Terrence Howard) Rooster must take over the speakeasy and learn to do business with the violent and unreasonable gangster who now controls the flow of booze into the club. Meanwhile Percival falls for a beautiful new singer in the club, and comes out of his shell just in time for the violent and bloody finale.
Idlewild manages to skirt around my usual problem with musicals—people bursting into song at the drop of a hat is silly!—by setting most of the musical numbers in a Prohibition era speakeasy ironically called The Church. Here we get the movie’s strengths—spectacularly choreographed dance numbers mixing dance styles old and new, cool new retro-modern sounding music from Outkast, Macy Gray and newcomer Paula Patton and a rich and interesting visual pallet.
Good thing we have lots of eye and ear candy to distract us from the movie’s faults. Benjamin and Patton are sturdy performers, but their acting chops pale by comparison to their co-star Terrence Howard who owns the screen each time he steps into frame.
The script doesn’t do either of the neophyte actors any favors—it must have been tough for Benjamin to sing a love song to a corpse in his big screen debut—and is a bit of a hallucinatory mess—what did you expect from a former music video director?—but Idlewild’s energy, beauty and verve make up for its shortcomings.