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Film Review: Idlewild

Idlewild (2006; Directed by Bryan Barber)

Idlewild was both a great and a potentially disastrous idea: hip hop’s pre-eminent creative duo, OutKast, coming off a mega-selling, critically-acclaimed double album that won the second Album of the Year Grammy Award for the genre (after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), make a rollicking film musical set in the titular town in Michigan (I naturally assumed it was the South, considering Outkast is from Atlanta) during the Great Depression. The result was a sizable commercial flop in cinemas and a moderate success in record stores (though only about half of the film songs were new, the companion album was full of originals), though artistically Idlewild is neither a total debacle nor an underappreciated triumph.

Onscreen, this concept manages to spawn a handful of fine individual moments, but it still comes off as a wasted opportunity. Considerable delays faced this project, and it’s possible that the vision of OutKast and director Bryan Barber never really made it across the finish line. It seems like there is a memorably entertaining musical somwhere here that was simply lost between the set and the editing room.

Part of the problem is that so much of the music seems to have been left out. There’s plenty of scenes concerning the supposedly unbreakable bond between lifelong friends Percival (Andre 3000) and Rooster (Big Boi). But they spend very little time together onscreen for such bosom buddies, and basically only ever repeat the same two lines to each other when they are together. Barber acknowledges that they have grown up into separate lives, Percival staying clean and lonesome in the mortuary business and Rooster balancing family life with running rackets and frequenting seedy clubs. It’s hardly a surprising move to construct Big Boi as a smooth ghetto player and Andre as a freaky maverick, as these are the creative personas they have assumed throughout OutKast’s run.

Indeed, Idlewild is in some ways a fictional frame for the gradual parting of creative ways for Andre 3000 and Big Boi, a narrativization of the slow dissolution of one of hip hop’s most productive partnerships (the Idlewild album remains their last joint release to date). But the products of that partnership, the fruits of that creative tension, the songs themselves, are secondary, perfunctory in the film. There are stand-out moments, like the brief, loopy “Chronomentrophobia”. Andre muses about the merciless gears of time in a sequence strewn with ticking clocks that is redolent in tone, aurally and visually, to the “Ms. Jackson” video. But really, very little is ever revealed about these men through the music. The tunes, cracking as they may be, are here simply as cracking tunes, not as thematic conduits or measures of character development, as is common to the musical genre. And the proceedings suffer as a result.

Idlewild saves its greatest triumph and deepest frustration for last. Andre’s character as written is supposed to be shy and withdrawn, no doubt, and his tragic love for Angel (Paula Patton) encourages him to push out of his shell and into an eventual coda of musical success and fame. But Andre’s prodigious stage charisma explodes so giddily during the musical number over the end credits that you find yourself wondering why the film decided that it was in its best interests to bury that charisma so very thoroughly up to that point. Narrative concerns trump sheer entertainment, right up to the end. Which is kind of the rub on Idlewild: there’s some good, and a whole lot of potential good, but the film never quite clues in to its own strengths enough to become something more than simply okay.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
  1. kotikojafaridze
    May 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Reblogged this on kotiko jafaridze.

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