In Idlewild, the madly soulful and enjoyable period musical romance starring the two members of OutKast, the ’30s Prohibition nightclub where most of the action takes place looks, at first, to be a deeply familiar setting, reminiscent of other heightened movie-dream cabarets, like the ones in Moulin Rouge or The Cotton Club. This one, though, isn’t a world-famous big-city venue; it’s a speakeasy in Idlewild, Ga. — the sleazy hub of fun and danger in a sleepy small town. It’s a place run by croaky hustlers and ice-cold gangsters, where people come to cast off their identities and, in the process, reveal who they are.
The movie was written and directed, in his feature debut, by Bryan Barber, who made a handful of OutKast’s irresistible music videos, notably the Ed Sullivan-on-acid jam bash ”Hey Ya!,” and he establishes the club as a place of swirling pleasure and danger. On stage, Rooster, played by Antwan A. Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi), is the headlining rapper, and he clicks out the words with such lickety-split velocity that you’re on the edge of your seat trying to take them all in. The people dancing in front of the stage are like a stylized funk mosh pit.
Yes, you heard right: Rooster raps. This is one of those post-MTV modern-music-in-an-old-setting movies, yet here, as in Moulin Rouge, the conceit doesn’t take a lot of getting used to. Idlewild, more than anything, is a jazzy experience — a free-form improv riff on old movies — and it’s not a big stretch to hear the songs of OutKast, even when they’re more energetic than inspired (as is often the case here), as an heir to jazz anarchy. André Benjamin, looking as solemn as a statue of one of the founding fathers, with eyes that speak volumes he’ll never say, plays Percival, who lives with, and works for, his stern, widowed undertaker dad (Ben Vereen). Benjamin brings off the considerable trick of making silence speak, yet Percival has a hidden crazy-cool side. He sleeps under a dozen cuckoo clocks (they accompany him in one of the film’s best numbers), and he’s the club’s onstage piano player, composing music he shyly longs to share. This is, among other things, a movie about a mortician who learns to get his groove on.
Idlewild is a romp, a ticket to rowdy good times, yet from the charming opening-credit sequence, in which we see Percival and Rooster as young boys bouncing between funerals and bootleggers, it shouldn’t be confused with one of those movies in which hyperactive ”flash” compensates for a half-baked story line. The film has movement, but it also has gravitas. I’m not sure what OutKast fans, let alone the Snakes on a Plane crowd, will make of it, but Idlewild is a film of spiky delights — a vision of African-American pop culture rising above the heartache and sin that has nurtured it.
Off stage, Rooster sleeps with chorus girls and floozies, keeping as far away as he can from his wife and his brood of kids. The movie tweaks Rooster’s transgressions lightly, yet it doesn’t let him off the hook; Patton, in a deft performance, makes him a party monster with a sense of shame. When Terrence Howard shows up as Trumpy, a dapper, soft-voiced ”businessman” who wastes no time bumping off his adversaries in order to take over the club, it is, in a sense, a standard gangster’s rise to power, except that the face-off between Trumpy and his rivals, like the raspy hog hedonist ”Sunshine” Ace (Faizon Love), has a different texture from the dynamic among white movie gangsters. The assertion of criminal power is, if anything, more of a violation here, because these men presume, on some level, to be brothers stuck in the same boat. Playing a heavy, Howard summons an elegant ruthlessness; as Trumpy, he displays an indifference to those ”beneath” him that is quietly, almost obscenely disdainful. Trumpy puts Rooster in charge of the club, only to drown him in debt, jacking up the price of illegal booze, and the effect of this backdrop of exploitation is to raise the stakes of everything that happens.
The most exciting thing that happens is that a singer named Angel Davenport walks into the room, and — I don’t get to say this often — a star is born. Paula Patton, who had a small role in Hitch, is as gloriously gorgeous as the young Whitney Houston, and she acts with an eagerness and hope and pain that electrifies the movie. Angel isn’t free of sin herself, yet when she stands on stage, singing the numbers Percival has written for her, she’s like dynamite wrapped in silk. The love story between these two is the heart of the movie. Can they save each other? By the end of Idlewild, you’ll be yearning, if not shedding a tear, to find out.