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Idlewild

New Song of the South

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In the late '80s, there was a mini-fad of extended music videos, where some eager director would dump a lot of extraneous dialogue and narrative in and around the song part. My mind fluttered back to those ill-advised experiments while scoping out Idlewild, which offers a middling dramedy padded around plenty of eye-popping and exhilarating musical numbers.

 

 

The film's been a longtime pet project of the OutKast crew ... performers Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and André "3000" Benjamin, and their music-video collaborator Bryan Barber. Barber wrote the script and directs; Patton and Benjamin supplied the tunes, and star.

 

Idlewild is a brightly colored Southern fantasy, set in the Prohibition-era eponymous Georgia town (these are happy, well-dressed times, not the province of institutionalized racism or rural deprivation). Rooster (Patton) runs a nightclub; he's equal parts family man, rum-runner and entertainer. His childhood buddy, Percival (Benjamin), is a quiet sort, who works with his gloomy dad (Ben Vereen) at a funeral home. But at night, Percival tiptoes out to Rooster's club, where he tinkles the ivories in the club's band while wishing he had the nerve let loose with some of his own innovative compositions.

 

Rooster's comfortable berth is about to be upended when a new gangster, Trumpy (Terrence Howard) steps in; meanwhile, the club's new chanteuse, the appropriately named Angel (Paula Patton), is about to lead the shy Percival to revelation. These stories burble along predictably. The actors just skirt overplaying, but generally turn in enjoyable performances with just the hint of a wink. Benjamin plays the sad-eyed Percival so quietly, it's a real relief to see him bust free during the closing-credit number.

 

The song-and-dance sequences are Idlewild's highlights (runner-up: the costumes, which are plentiful and sumptuous). These numbers are toe-tapping mash-ups of sounds and style: a burst of rap here, a Cab Calloway-inspired holler there; swing dancing morphs easily into body-popping; half-naked girls shake their tail-feathers on 1930s Hollywood-inspired sets. And that's just at the club. Barber lets Benjamin drop a couple tunes back at the mortuary, including a daydream-inspired call-and-response number with cuckoo clocks.

 

At nearly two hours, Idlewild is 30 minutes too long ... it needs less gangster chit-chat and more juke-joint jumping. Nor is the film wholly kooky enough to make Barber's occasional visual gimmicks (a vertigo-inducing camera shot, odd bits of animation) feel integral.

 

Yet, the gang deserves credit for trying: Making a hybridized musical these days is a tough sell, even when splashed up with familiar clowning, sex and violence. In this era of tedious cookie-cutter films, I welcome an ambitious project, even if it trips here and there. Because at least when Idlewild stumbles, it's apt to drop into full splits and pop back up in some crowd-pleasing syncopated backflip.

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