André Benjamin as Percival Jenkins
Antwan A. Patton (Big Boi) as Rooster
Paula Patton as Angela Davenport
Terrence Howard as Trumpy
Faizon Love as Sunshine Ace
Malinda Williams as Zora
Cicely Tyson as Mother Hopkins
Macy Gray as Taffy
Ben Vereen as Percy Senior
Paula Jai Parker as Rose
Bobb’e J. Thompson as Young Rooster
Patti Labelle as The Real Angela Davenport
Ving Rhames as Spats
Jackie Long as Monk
Oscar Dillon as Bobo
Jalil Jay Lynch as Cliff
Esau Ali Caldwell as Sonny
Bruce Bruce as Nathan
Bentley Farnsworth as Voice of the Flask
Directed by Bryan Barber
OutKast flex their muscle as artists with a disjointed period crime drama that may try the patience of even their most diehard fans.
Childhood friends Percival Jenkins (André Benjamin) and Rooster (Big Boi) follow different paths as they grow up in the small town of Idlewild, Georgia during the Prohibition of the ’30s, the former as the son of an undertaker (Ben Vereen), the latter as a gangster and bootlegger, but they both end up performing nightly at a local club called The Church.
Back in the ’80s, you couldn’t do much better for party music than his Purple Highness Prince, and twenty years later, OutKast, the Atlanta, Georgia hip-hop duo took up his tradition, mixing musical styles to create catchy party tunes. Now, OutKast has followed Prince into the movie business with a musical that owes as much to his biggest hit “Purple Rain” as it does to his long-forgotten follow-up “Under the Cherry Moon.”
“Idlewild” brings the group’s innovative musical amalgam into a new setting, that of the poverty-stricken South of the Prohibition era ’30s, its mix of reality and fantasy putting a further crimp in my long-time theory about there being musicals for “Chicago people” and others for “Moulin Rouge people.” While there’s the the danger of a movie like this turning into one long extended OutKast video, instead, we’re given a trite ’30s gangster storyline that isn’t nearly as interesting as any of the references mentioned above.
The story’s two protagonists, Percival (Benjamin) and Rooster (Patton), meet as youngsters, Rooster taking an early interest in his uncle’s alcohol running business and Percival being groomed by his father to take over at the mortuary. Decades later, they’re both performing at a local speakeasy called The Church, where Rooster and his mentor Spats (Ving Rhames) are dealing with a conniving upstart (Terrence Howard) who wants to take over their liquor running business. Along comes Angela Davenport (Paula Patton), a city chanteuse who suddenly wakes up feelings in Percival that makes him want to turn his back on his father’s expectations.
The biggest misnomer about “Idlewild” is that it’s an “OutKast movie” since the two guys barely appear in the movie at the same time, further adding to the myths of an impending OutKast split. Benjamin’s Perfical has nothing to do with his party-loving womanizer alter ego of André 3000 he portrays on OutKast’s records. Instead, he’s in “serious actor” mode, something which is hard to take too seriously because he really isn’t that strong an actor. “Big Boi,” also appearing under his real name, Antwon Patton, is much closer to his on-record person, and ends up being far more entertaining on screen, especially when he is interacting with a talking rooster on his inherited flask.
For the most part, the movie drags along with a lot more talking and exposition than the musical numbers that most people will expect, and there is a surprising lack of new music with most of the musical dance numbers being based on songs from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” and even older tunes. (You don’t need to go to The Church to be thankful that “Hey Ya,” the most annoying song since Smashmouth’s “Superstar,” was left out.) Avoiding comparisons with “Purple Rain” is made harder by so many moments in “Idlewild” being taken almost verbatim from Prince’s movie, whether it’s Percival’s disapproving father, played by Ben Vereen, or his wooing of Angela by writing a song for her to sing.
Paula Patton is the movie’s one true breakthrough, showing up as a demanding diva, but becoming something different when she performs Percifal’s original song (“Moving Cool”). It’s one of the movie’s high points, because she has such a natural on-screen charisma that she’s certainly an actress to watch. On the other hand, Terrence Howard, who gave so many strong performances last year, seems to be holding back with his role as the movie’s antagonist, maybe as to not make his musical co-stars look as bad.
Otherwise, the movie is fairly devoid of the fun and laughs some might expect, partially because Benjamin is deliberately playing down that aspect of his persona. His character’s story arc concludes with a creepy and depressing ballad to a corpse, something so ludicrous that it’s hard to recover from it. On the flip side of the coin, Rooster’s war with Terrence Howard’s ruthless mob culminates in a shoot-out and a car chase to the tune of his signature “Speakerboxxx” tune “Church.”
Bryan Barber, OutKast’s video director who also penned the script, has a good eye for interesting visuals, creating a stylish film that seamlessly mixes live action with animation, including the way he brings old photographs to life for the intro. Unfortunately, he’s not quite as good at getting decent performances out of his cast and though the musical numbers are great, the rest of the movie tends to drag.
The Bottom Line:
Some OutKast fans may be able to forgive “Idlewild”‘s weak storytelling and acting, but it’s hard not to be disappointed by the lack of new tunes in what really isn’t as much an “OutKast movie” as a cinematic experiment by the guys behind the rap group. It is logical extension of their recording output in some ways, but it lacks much of the innovation and sense of fun we’ve come to expect, only really shining when the guys are onstage performing their tunes.