2006Director: Bryan Barber
Cast: André Benjamin, Antwan A. Patton, Terrence Howard
s soon as the young dancer Aisha Mitchell got out of the New York City premiere screening of Idlewild, she called her mother. Mitchell, who is apprenticing with the Alvin Ailey II Dance Company/Fordham and had snagged one of four free tickets at her studio, comes from a family of performers and artists. Her mother runs a dance school in upstate New York, her brother is a stage lighting designer and, thanks to her photographer grandmother, most everyone in the family learned to handle a camera before they could read. Mitchell was calling her mother, shouting over the celebrity party hubbub, one dancer to another, “Mom, you gotta see this movie!”
Not so easy in upstate New York. A single mall multiplex in the five counties surrounding Aisha Mitchell’s hometown has Idlewild on-screen during its wide release opening week. Further, there’s been a chorus of sour harrumphs abroad in the land about this movie—some of them fueled by disappointment in the soundtrack CD, which unfortunately got out just ahead of the film.
Following their stunning music videos, Idlewild is the cross-over to film for the friends-since-forever hip-hop duo OutKast. Originally an HBO project slated for TV, Idlewild picked up additional producers, funding and film status during its several years’ gestation. André Benjamin, aka André 3000, plays shy piano man Percival, and Antwan A. Patton, aka Big Boi, plays Percival’s friend-since-forever, the small town showman Rooster. There are plot-twists and complications galore, making necessary the film’s lightening swoops and cuts back and forth between scenes as the story proceeds upon several parallel tracks. These involve the retiring gangster Spats (Ving Rhames), his vengeful henchman Trumpy (Terrence Howard in easily the film’s best dramatic turn), Rooster’s two-timing ways, Percival’s quandary about leaving his still-grieving undertaker father and his own lyrical but ill-fated romance with the mysterious singer Angel Davenport, who turns out to be Sally B. Shelly.
Although the movie title references a planned, all-black vacation enclave about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan, that flourished from the 1920’s into the 60’s, writer-director Bryan Barber has moved his story to seedier, vaguely more menacing Georgia. Here, there are boot-leggers, small-time vicious hoods, and a saloon called Church with production numbers whose loopy grandiosity is all out of proportion to the town’s sleeping, unassuming exterior.
That Barber uses the name of the Michigan resort at all and then moves the setting to the Deep South allows him to pull associations from both regions and adds a certain bite. Idlewild is not really about historical accuracy in a literal way—not a story of 1930’s Georgia as much as a story about a hip-hop duo making a movie about the 1930’s. They themselves invite us to share in their own exploration. Someone has said the cast looks like they’re playing dress-up in their parents’ out-sized clothes. Well, yes. And the movie has the confidence and capacity for self-mockery to mostly pull that off. When Rooster arrives on stage the first time he strikes a pose and surveys the crowd with a look that asks, “So how do I look in this rig?”
In fact, doubling, dissembling and transformation pervade Idlewild’s whole fabric. Story elements aside, in this film’s elastic universe, time passages are marked by a change between Technicolor and black and white. Doodles suddenly live and jump off Percival’s sheets of music. Portions of photos enlarge and start to move. Rooster has a silver whiskey flask with the figure of a rooster on it that animates and raps boisterously with him. Several times cinematographer Pascal Rabaud slows the camera to tease out the breath-taking grace of choreographer Hinton Battle’s large dance numbers. Dismissed by some as “mishmash,” this really amounts to a visual equivalent of rapping that loosens up the mind’s eye. Something startling occurs from these shenanigans, I think, that prepares us to let in the extraordinary. Set down in the middle there’s a sequence of Percival and Angel coming together during a drenching night thunderstorm that’s unashamedly, full-tilt lovely. And, in a deft illustration of violence that’s anything but gratuitous, Idlewild contains a trio of bloody showdowns in which Rooster first hides from Trumpy, then daringly runs away (in the best car chase in years), and finally vanquishes him back at Church.
Idlewild stumbles sometimes along its inspired path. A couple smaller performances verge gratingly on slapstick. Rooster’s own rapping on-stage is strangely limp, despite the dancing in others that his character inspires. I held my breath a bit during Percival’s final moments with Angel as veering too close to maudlin—even as I found myself engaged in what he’d choose. And I remain crossly unforgiving about the decision to cover up Percival’s final spectacular song and dance number with the scrolling text of the end credits. Some of our best filmmakers gave us uneven early work—incandescent scenes alternating with duds. I remember wondering during The Last Temptation of Christ if Scorcese maybe had an evil twin. Idlewild is flawed in the way that brazenly brilliant, impudent, full-of-themselves projects usually are—projects that get some people a little tight around the mouth—which means, yeah, you gotta see it.
Idlewild is playing in theatres across the country.