From the moment I first read about Outkast’s idea for a movie musical, I loved it. Despite its R&B roots, hip-hop is a contemporary, urban genre, so the notion of a hip-hop musical set in Prohibition-era, small-town Georgia was wholly unexpected and thus wholly intriguing. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be the talented, innovative duo of André “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, supported by their frequent music video director, Bryan Barber.
Outkast didn’t disappoint me. Intellectually, I know that Idlewild won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s an outrageous patchwork of genres, both musical and cinematic, and it revels in smashing imaginative flights of fancy against well-worn movie tropes. Did I overlook the movie’s jumbled nature? Not at all. Idlewild teems with energy and life and creative juices; I loved it not despite the bricolage but, in part, because of it.
The film revolves around the Church, an ironically named nightclub in the fictional town of Idlewild, Georgia. The club’s manager and star performer is Rooster (Patton), a gregarious man who doesn’t apply the same shrewd judgment to his personal life that he does to business matters. Rooster’s childhood friend Percival Jenkins (Benjamin), the painfully shy son of the local mortician, plays the piano at the Church, though he seems more overwhelmed by than appreciative of the club’s ribald charms. Both men are mired in unhappy lives until the assassination of a crime boss and the arrival of a beautiful chanteuse throw the Church into turmoil.
The stories of Rooster and Percival are largely independent of each other, intersecting only at the nightclub, and indeed is at the Church that the movie truly catches fire. The gleefully anachronistic spectacles there blend hip-hop and jazz, brass and guitars, live performance and scratchy effects, unusual melodies and intricate raps, into a riotous but unified sound, brought to life through Benjamin and Patton’s magnetic performances and Hinton Battle’s vigorously athletic choreography, also resplendent with genre-busting glory. Barber moves the camera just enough to feed the energy of the place but not so much as to threaten coherence, and the effect is absorbing, enough to make me desperate to attend an Outkast concert, now sadly unlikely as all signs point to the duo soon parting ways.
A small ensemble of talented actors—notably Terrence Howard and Ving Rhames as gangsters and Cicely Tyson in a pivotal cameo—has joined Outkast on screen, and though their performances are quite fine, the visual and aural dazzle is what makes Idlewild special. Unbound by any need for realism, Barber indulges in all manner of filmmaking effects. Some are more successful than others—swinging the camera over and around a focal point to signify the passing of time just made me dizzy—but those that work are haunting. An elegiac scene late in the movie, filmed all in blues and grays, is particularly affecting, mournful without being muted. In lighter moments, Barber uses a collection of impossibly animated cuckoo clocks to great effect and seamlessly introduces a talking hip flask (yes, really) into the tale.
Of course, if you’re unwilling to accept occasional commentary (and rapping!) from a devilish pewter flask, Idlewild probably isn’t the movie for you. But if you’re a sucker for that kind of storytelling audacity and tickled by the inversion of the angel-on-his-shoulder cliché, you might find the musical’s fanciful nature entertaining, appealing, and even touching. It’s obvious in which category I fit, of course, but regardless of whether the movie works or not (a debatable point, I acknowledge), I’m just happy it was made. This kind of originality—unfettered from marketing plans and production formulae, freed from the tyranny of expectations—should be cherished and celebrated and nourished.