If it weren’t true, Frankie Lymon’s rags-to-riches, pip-squeak-to-Valentino, star-to-junkie life story could have been invented for the movies. A scrawny black kid from New York City, Lymon doo-wops in the ’50s with some buddies who call themselves the Teenagers, records a hit single, and becomes a rock & roll sensation. He weds three women without bothering to divorce them in between. And he dies of a drug overdose at the age of 25, leaving his affairs in such a mess that when Diana Ross rerecords his big hit in 1981 — making the charts once again–and one of his widows comes looking for royalties, the others also show up at court, demanding their payday too.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love takes its name from Lymon’s signature song, and its attitude, too. The man may have been a genial musical lightweight and charming showman–also a lying, deceiving, heroin-abusing dead-ender–but it’s as a nervy romantic that he’s saluted in this tricked-out, fussed-over, and curiously unengaging biopic from Gregory Nava, who last burnished a musical legend with Selena. Focusing on Lymon’s three battling wives as they tell their stories to the judge (Pamela Reed), the film shows that the women are the real fools for love, and the performers who play them are graduates of the “Get over yourself, girlfriend!” school popular among actresses these days–a school that’s only getting more dangerously crowded following the success of The First Wives Club and Waiting to Exhale.
Halle Berry (Bulworth), satiny beautiful, plays the glamorous one, a singer who falls for Lymon’s star power. Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day), in whup-your-sorry-ass mode, is the street-smart one, a shop-lifting welfare mother who sticks by her husband when he bottoms out. And Lela Rochon (Waiting to Exhale), dowdied up, plays the demure schoolteacher Lymon marries during his join-the-Army-and-settle-in-Georgia final phase, which fell apart when he popped up to New York and did fatal smack. Here’s what the girls decide: “Maybe there are three separate Frankies, and each of us got a piece.”
We, meanwhile, get no discernible Frankie at all, although we do get a high-flying performance from Larenz Tate, having more fun than he did in The Postman. And we get a jumble of novelty film tricks in a self-conscious attempt to convey ’50s and ’60s bopping and grooving. The one real deal in this synthetic production is that fool-like-a-fox Little Richard, who plays himself during the trial. Every minute he’s on, flashing mad eyes and tutti-frutti-ing, is reason to shout — as Lymon did — “Goody Goody.”