It should come as little surprise that Bryan Barber’s “Idlewild” is a sumptuously shot visual feast. As a director who spent years making music videos for the like of Nelly Furtado, Destiny’s Child and OutKast, Barber has built himself a keen eye for making stunning visuals. But like too many video directors turned filmmakers, Barber has forgotten having more than four minutes to tell a story does not mean take your own sweet time getting to the point.
”Idlewild” tells the story of two childhood friends, Percy (Andre “3000” Benajmin) and Rooster (Antwan A. “Big Boi” Patton), who work together at a small juke joint in the even smaller titular town deep in the heart of Georgia. After a wonderfully inventive opening credit sequence which breathlessly sets the overall tone and mood of the film, we catch up with the pair as young adults, with Percy, the son of the local mortician (the legendary Ben Vereen), spending his days dealing with dead people before he heads off to Church, the ironically-named club where he plays piano for Rooster, the flashy lead performer and club manager. Shy and quiet, Percy finally finds someone to relate to in Angel (Paula Patton), a beautiful singer whom has been hired by club owner Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love) to come down from the big city up in the Midwest to entertain the locals. Rooster, the (not quite) devoted family man, soon finds himself not only the owner of Church but heavily in debt to the new local moonshine provider Trumpy (Terrence Howard).
Usually, I am the type of person who promotes substance over style, when forced to choose one over the other. And while “Idlewild” offers very little that hasn’t become cliched after a thousand other musicals, the film constantly remains appealing thanks to Pascal Rabaud’s opulent cinematography, Charles Breen’s evocative sets, Shawn Barton’s magnificent costumes and, most especially, Hinton Battle’s mind-blowing dance choreography. During sequences such as “Bowtie,” Rooster’s first song at Church, all these great talents come together to show audiences something they haven’t seen since the last days of Vincent Minelli. The camera flits about the room as Rooster sings a little ditty about dressing fine (don’t look for this song, or several other standout tracks from the movie on the “official” soundtrack, because they’ve all been mysteriously omitted, lest there be a second as-yet-unannounced release coming down the pike later this year), picking up the crowd as they excitedly celebrate the music with euphoric dancing, the action slowing down just so during some of the best moves. It is modern technology working with classic storytelling techniques to create a beautiful work of art, as also demonstrated in the Andre 3000 song “Chronomentrophobia,” which finds the singer getting unusual but appropriate backup vocals from the dozens of cuckoo clocks in his character’s bedroom.
As great as Andre 3000 and Big Boi may be as musicians, they both still have a way to go as actors, even if they are only playing extensions of themselves. They both have the look that will probably make them movie stars, if that is an avenue either of them decides to pursue. However, both play their characters with very little emotional flexibility, a situation that good actors could overcome when working with a still-developing filmmaker. As the writer and director of “Idlewild,” it is ultimately Barber’s fault that his lead actors’ performances are so stiff, and why many of the supporting actors, including Paula Patton, Ben Vereen, Faizon Love, Ving Rhames and Patti LaBelle, are barely one-dimensional. Only Terrence Howard, deeply crutching on his soulful eyes and silky voice, and Macy Grey, taking that sassy voice and wrapping it around her entire being as one of Church’s minor entertainers threatened by Angel’s arrival, dare to take their characters to any kind of demonstrative depth.
”Idlewild” shows Barber has the chops to make it in features, if he can learn to reign in his tendencies to shortcut the poignancy of his moments. (One suspects Barber honestly believes the scene between Rooster and a family of travelers led by Cicely Tyson was meant to convey a sense of growth and maturity within Rooster for performing an altruistic act, when in actuality this nearly five minute scene exists solely to get Rooster a prop he will need in his next scene.) It is doubtful the film will find much of an audience outside of OutKast fans, which would be a minor shame, as there is enough of value within the mechanics of the filmmaking to find interest with those who are into the artifice of cinema.Rating: B-