FILM REVIEW ‌ Gangsta Style 

OutKast's Idlewild is a beautiful cinematic phantasmagoria

click to enlarge Idlewild: proof that music video dancers and fake boobs transcend history
  • Idlewild: proof that music video dancers and fake boobs transcend history

HBO Films
Directed by Bryan Barber
Starring André Benjamin, Antwan Patton, Ben Vereen, Terrence Howard, and Paula Patton
Rated R

I'm a boring, unhip white girl — what do I know about the multi-platinum-selling, multi-Grammy-winning hip-hop/R&B group OutKast? Nada, except of course that all the kids today are into them. And still, I loved Idlewild (even though the only Idlewild I know is that that's what John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City used to be called, and I only know that because of Goodfellas). And even if you're unaware that this is basically The OutKast Movie, you may well love it, too.

This is fantasy like we like our movies to be, a cinematic phantasmagoria of a dream version of the past — of bootleggers and flappers and gangsters and speakeasies and Josephine Baker-esque barebreasted showgirls in a lush, rich, ridiculously romantic tapestry of sex and violence and friendship and love and music and dancing and all those dramatic and electrifying things. It has nothing to do with OutKast. Except that it does, too, in a way: Idlewild reconnects the urgent street cred of today's most original pop musicians — rappers — to the urgent street cred of the stylish criminals of the Depression and Prohibition (though probably they're only "stylish" in blurry collective memory, and never were in solid reality). It's not a coincidence that "gangsta" has come to describe these entertainers, even when they don't go to the extremes of actual street-corner gun battles with rivals: the last time there was a generation like Generation X — expedient and cynical and more concerned with the concrete reality of making a living in a tough time than with loftier matters — they were called the Lost Generation, and Idlewild rediscovers them anew. And part of why this enthralling film is so fresh is because — if you, like me, are thirtysomething and feeling the pinch of a dead economy and worrying that things are never gonna be any better than they are now, and probably a lot worse — well, these people here feel like us now, not like fusty old historical figures. There's an air of delicious inevitability about Idlewild, like it's about damn time someone recognized history coming around again to bite us on the ass, as well as an air of delicious rightness, like you knew there was a reason why the idea of speakeasies and bootleggers was always so charming, and now it all makes sense.

This is a beautiful two-hour music video, written and directed by Bryan Barber, who's been OutKast's behind-the-lens partner in cinematic crime, creating their visual end for years, and choreographed by Tony winner Hinton Battle, who invented a whole new kind of dancing he called "swop" — a combination of swing and hip-hop moves, so you're seeing the lindy and breakdancing at the same time — to go along with music that is lovely and exhilarating at once. Sometimes it's new stuff written and performed by OutKast — André Benjamin and Antwan A. "Big Boi" Patton — and sometimes it's vintage Cab Calloway or Bessie Smith, and often it's a blending of the classic and the contemporary.

It's all very Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge!, in a lot of ways, from that time-out-of-time feeling to its tale of tragic bohemian entertainers: Benjamin plays Percival, a shy piano player who writes fantastic songs but can't break free of his domineering father (Ben Vereen), the local mortician; his oldest childhood friend is the slick, fast-talking Rooster (Patton), who has recently taken over the running of the speakeasy in their small hometown of Idlewild, Ga., which everyone calls Church, though the worship that goes on there is mostly of the pagan-bacchanalia kind; their lives are complicated by the arrival of the mysterious singer Angel (Paula Patton) as well as the interference of small-time gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard). And if the way much of their story goes is a tad conventional, well, call it "classic" instead — because from its rowdy spiritual energy to its visual grace notes of whimsy, Idlewild is at once timeless and timely, an elegant and elemental little masterwork of The Movies.


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