What’s extraordinary about “Idlewild,” Outkast’s first foray into feature film, isn’t the stylized beauty, expertly choreographed numbers or smart soundtrack. Instead, it’s that “Idlewild” was ever theatrically released.
“Idlewild” isn’t so much a film as it is an extended promo for the soundtrack. Its closest relative isn’t “8 Mile” but “3 Chains o’ Gold,” Prince’s glossy, over-the-top feature-length ad for his “The Love Symbol” album. Like most films of its ilk, Prince’s album promo was released direct-to-video. And, despite some engaging moments and how expert Outkast’s music is, “Idlewild” should have had a similar distribution.
Unlike “3 Chains o’ Gold,” “Idlewild” takes more of a musical-inspired approach. Usually, when Percival (Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000)), a repressed mortician-cum-piano player, and Rooster (Antwan A. Patton (Big Boi)), a hustler, entertainer and reluctant family man, start in on a song it’s in the confines of the Church, a Prohibition club in Georgia that resembles more a vaudeville by way of the Moulin Rouge than a typical Southern speakeasy. They both work there, so the numbers are motivated. When other tunes are belted out—like when Percival is lamenting the death of his lover, Sally (Paula Patton), and when Rooster is being chased and shot at by the Morris Day-inspired gangster, Trumpy (Terrence Howard)—they are nothing more than big-budget music videos. Still, these moments are fun and visually wonderful. When Percival is awakened by a wall full of cuckoo clocks, for instance, Bryan Barber’s direction guides the scene from typical MTV to Michel Gondry sublimity.
Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Idlewild” is aimless. Is it a collection of videos, or is it a meta-musical like “Moulin Rouge”? There is more than a passing resemblance to Baz Luhrmann’s film about the French can-can. Barber and Outkast take music and dance from the 1930s and infuse them with a healthy dose of modernity, and they even cherry-pick some “Moulin Rouge” narrative elements. Unfortunately, Barber and Outkast can’t sustain the thrust that made “Moulin Rouge” unique. They try, admirably, but get bogged down by and can’t overcome the extended music video feel of the film.
Not helping matters is how fractured the film is. On their last album, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” Big Boi and Andre 3000 each get a disc to showcase their unique talents, with little overlapping interaction between the two. That same approach is employed here, not only in the music but in the narrative. It might work on the “Idlewild” soundtrack, but in the film it backfires. Their individual storylines are weighted so differently, and they have so few scenes together, that you’re almost forced to pick one side of the film—the “Speakerboxxx,” Rooster side or “The Love Below,” Percival one—to care about.
That’s an unfair decision to ask of an audience in a legitimate feature film. But it’s one that would feel normal in a high-concept promo DVD for Outkast—which is what “Idlewild” probably should have been in the first place.