I didn't go into Idlewild expecting to see one of the best films of 2006. In fact, I didn't go into Idlewild, Bryan Barber
's bootlegger/gangster musical, with any expectations. Perhaps Universal
was equally perplexed. This really isn't a film you can effectively advertise in any traditional sense. The most challenging films are never that easy. Not having read about the film and not being a fan of musicals – the very thought of Moulin Rouge made my bowels quake – I approached Idlewild with apprehension. I'm a fan of Outkast. I've always preferred Andre 3000
's quirk and funk to Big Boi
's gangsta shuffle, but I came out of Idlewild with a much richer appreciation for the duo's talent.
You don't need to have heard a single song by Outkast to appreciate Idlewild's brilliance. The film has a life – at times almost fantastical – that springs from the screen and pounces and coos in your lap as though it's wooing you. Barber was a video clip director, he cut his teeth on three minute commercials for bands like Outkast, and he's got the polish down so tight it's almost part of the celluloid. At times it can be distracting. Sometimes there is so much happening on screen that you eyes overload and your brain shuts down. You just can't catch it all. But the music – that snaky (perfectly used) synth bass line, that flapping guitar work, the sugary gut punch of the horns – pulls you back into the film like a musical whirlpool. Article continues below
The film's plot is almost secondary to its visual and musical milieu. The film breathes movement and anytime it pauses to get into plot machinations it feels a bit labored. The story is simple: 1930s Georgia, two friends, Rooster (Big Boi aka Antwan A. Patton) and Percival (Andre 3000 aka André Benjamin) lead very different lives but maintain their close friendship. Rooster's a gangster and hustler – he sells moonshine to the enormous Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love
), owner of a speakeasy called Church. Percival is a mortician's son and a piano player at Church who isn't comfortable with his talent or the thought of leaving Idlewild and his father. When Ace is gunned down by the sleazy Trumpy (another outstanding performance by Terrance Howard
), Rooster inherits Church and all the problems (debts) that come with it. Throw in some domestic drama, a love interest with chanteuse Angel (Paula Patton
), and you know that bullets will be flying.
Idlewild's vivacious musical numbers, however, are the real reason the picture succeeds. There aren't any moments where a character breaks into sudden and theatrical song. It's mostly (outside of a few powerful and hilarious moments) stagebound. These are true musical numbers. Big Boi, true to character, channels a slick gangsta style that is only enhanced by intricate wordplay and slippery grooves, while Andre 3000, the duo's comedic and emotional foil, runs riot with jazzy numbers that bubble and bounce with surprising beats. Pascal Rabaud's cinematography zooms and swirls with the music. Our introduction to the speakeasy makes it looks like a mammoth den of wantonness – fire eaters and tattooed burlesque dancers, madcap conductors and men on horns – and the requisite car chase/shootout is done in a dusk light that brings out all the blues (most of it digitally) we hope to see when the moon rises. One shouldn't go into Idlewild expecting a realistic picture. Anachronisms and high stylization abound. There are cartoon interludes, CGI-talking hip flasks, and bizarre couplings of dark humor and zany slapstick.
Despite having a nearly all black cast, this is not a film about race. Nor is it about poverty or desperation. At the start of the film its uncanny posturing seems a bit trite, a bit too removed from the reality the audience expects. But by the end of the picture – and it is not a minute too long – I was completely under Idlewild's spell. I tapped my feet the entire ride home.