Ever since the collapse of the studio system in the 1960s,
the movie musical has been considered to be on life support.
It's rather amusing since that feeling mirrors the way most people
have felt about the theater -- that Fabulous Invalid who just can't
or won't die. There are myriad reasons why the movie musical
has suffered over the last generation or so, not the least of which
is the complete fragmentation of culture. Everything nowadays
is designed to appeal to either a niche market or to the lowest
common denominator. I daresay there will be a lot of people who
will skip
IDLEWILD, for example, because it stars the hip-hop duo
OutKast (André Benjamin aka André 3000 and Antwan A. Patton aka
Big Boi). That would be a shame, because while it is not wholly
successful, the film is a worthy addition to the genre.

Directed by Bryan Barber, who has helmed the duo's popular
IDLEWILD is set in a mythic time and place. It's the late
1930s and Prohibition continues to reign in the sleepy Georgia town
that is the setting for the film. (The real Idlewild, a resort catering
to the African-American community was located in Michigan.)
The film takes the gangsta element of hip-hop and transposes it
to the gangster films of the 1930s, but with a twist. There are
also musical numbers.

The opening sequences of the film are quite promising.
Barber uses a mix of techniques, including animation, to chart
the friendship of the two main characters, Percival (Benjamin),
a quiet and shy son of the town undertaker who eventually
follows in the business, and Rooster (Patton), the charming
gambler, family man (he and his long-suffering wife -- portrayed
by Malinda Williams -- have four children) and performer at the
local nightclub dubbed "Church." It turns out that Percival also
goes to "Church" on a daily basis -- he's the pianist in the band.

The establishment is run by Ace (Faizon Love) who runs
afoul of the local gangsters, Spats (Ving Rhames) and his
malevolent sidekick Trumpy (Terrence Howard). After a sort of
coup, Trumpy emerges as the big man in town and annoints
Rooster to operate the nightclub.

Complicating matters is the recent arrival in town of the
singer-diva Angel Davenport (Paula Patton). Armed with a contract
and a lot of moxie, she has been engaged for a series of
performances and one of the film's highlights is her act, which
was developed with Percival. The pair find themselves falling in
love and that causes conflict between Percival and his strict
father (Ben Vereen). Naturally, everything comes to a head at
Church and ... well, you'll just have to see the film.

Barber handles the musical sequences well. Some may
quibble over the use of hip-hop in a period piece, but the
choice is a deliberate one. There is a passing homage to bandleader
Cab Calloway in the film and in interviews Patton has been quick
to point out the musical connections between Calloway and his
"jive" and current musical trends. Some of the musical numbers
are more effective than others. Barber also handles most of the
dramatic scenes fairly well too. The one exception is an ineptly
staged car chase cum shootout that is badly filmed and edited.

The leads do passable work. Patton is charming and blustery
as Rooster while Benjamin handles Percival's conflict between
love and family well. The best acting is provided by veterans like
Vereen and Cicely Tyson in a cameo appearance, and newcomer
Paula Patton as the diva with a secret. Top acting kudos, however,
go to the charismatic Terrence Howard.

I would also urge the audience to remain for the closing
credits to see Benjamin perform a lively number that I wish had
been featured elsewhere in the film. It's a marvelous showcase
for the performer and I wish the entire film had been filled with
the verge and energy of that number. If so,
IDLEWILD would have
been a great movie instead of just a good one.

Rating:                B
MPAA Rating:        R for violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time:       121 mins.

        Viewed at the AMC 84th Street 6
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.