Those who still think of OutKast merely as a pair of hip hop artists may have failed to notice the spaceship these two young Atlanta natives have been flying around since well before 2003. That's the year Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which had even the most vehement hip hop antagonists swooning, was released. The hard-to-compare, even-harder-to-define double disc won the Grammy for album of the year and sold 11 million copies. It's safe to say that, with the Tuesday release of Idlewild, their sixth album, and the opening of a film by the same name today, OutKast's André Benjamin (André 3000) and Antwan Patton (Big Boi) have secured themselves a distinct place in the pop pantheon -- even if it is a very, very bohemian place indeed.
Idlewild the film is widely being described as a musical set in a speakeasy in the Prohibition-era South, with the album as its soundtrack. That's not exactly right. The film was held up for years, so most of the music is from Speakerboxx/The Love Below. That's a good thing; though the new album is pretty good, SB/TLB is a classic. The movie, moreover, isn't a conventional musical. It's more a collection of beautifully wrought music videos, with a pretty well done film blended in. (Indeed, Idlewild the project started off as a collection of videos. It was then expanded to a made-for-TV movie, which ultimately evolved into a theatrical motion picture.)
For fans, the film can be read as an allegory of Patton and Benjamin's relationship -- a longtime friendship that has only grown more fruitful as the pair's artistic differences have grown. In the movie, set in a mythical rural Georgia town called Idlewild, Patton plays Rooster, a boisterous, philandering musician and businessman, who is also a born hustler and, in one of several anachronisms, a talented rapper. Benjamin plays Percival, his soft-spoken, lifelong friend and the doe-eyed son of an emotionally distant mortician; he plays piano at the same juke joint, Church, that Rooster often headlines
Tension rises when the career of Rooster's hard-nosed uncle Spats (Ving Rhames) comes to an abrupt, permanent end and Rooster takes over his club. Terrence Howard -- who seems to instill every role with more depth than was written into it -- plays Trumpy, a money hungry gangster with a killer conk who is putting the squeeze on Rooster by raising the prices of liquor. Macy Gray, who plays a vaudeville performer at Church, Ben Vereen as Benjamin's father, and Cicely Tyson (in a beautiful cameo) round out a solid cast.
The film is an endless mix of rich, dark hued settings, dancing ladies, and debonair cats. These images keep the occasionally melodramatic plot visually interesting. The music, meanwhile, keeps your attention and, more importantly, sends you in the opposite direction of the plot at the most unexpected moments. Though Idlewild flirts with dramatic clichés, that's hardly new or illegitimate territory for music -- and Benjamin in particular loves to turn clichés on their heads. In Idlewild, songs are not used as interludes or plot devices but as surreal flights to an alternative interpretation of the story.
At one point, Benjamin, who is a bit stiff throughout, manages to convincingly break down into tears when Percival's lover and muse, a young singer, dies. Then, in a scene right out of a Tom Petty video, he puts on his Sunday best and just about steps off a chair with a noose around his neck. All the while he's singing the most dissonant tune you can imagine -- “She Lives in My Lap” (the song's title should be self-explanatory). The scene can be read as both silly and tragic, and as a fascinating counternarrative -- a subversive critique of passionate, Romeo and Juliet-style love. Audiences may be caught off guard, but the film has the conviction of its ideas -- and the guts to turn those ideas on their heads.
Indeed, it's too easy for critics to be reductive about Idlewild. I'd encourage them to think of Zora Neale Hurston's plays (most of which were discovered after her death). They were notable more for their celebration of the language, music, dance, and humor of everyday people than their neat dramatic arcs. Hurston also often deconstructed narrative tensions at their apex by having every character, friend or foe, burst into song. In Idlewild, that happens time and again. At its end, Benjamin blossoms into the performer he always hoped to be. Rooster has saved him from killing himself, and as the credits roll we see him singing on a polished stage, in bright lights, in an unnamed city. All I can say is, if at that point you don't find yourself dancing and singing along -- whether a little befuddled or not -- well, as Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in a review of SB/TLB in 2004, “this is why we need national health care now, because that is not right.”
It should be noted that there has been no mention at all in press commentary that Idlewild was a real black resort town in Michigan. The real Idlewild drew black celebrities from Jesse Owens to B.B. King and was one of the most popular segregation-era resorts in America. Today, it's hardly visible from the closest highway, yet both a documentary and book about it have come out in the past five years. Though neither OutKast nor Universal has highlighted this, journalists should be doing their homework; such oversights are unacceptable. By tipping their hats to an important footnote in history -- and telling stories, however unorthodox, in a way we can all nod our heads to and enjoy -- OutKast is, once again, doing so much more in so many ways than any of us would have expected.
Alex P. Kellogg writes for The Detroit Free Press.
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