Harlem Nights meets Moulin Rouge in Idlewild, which stars the dynamic duo known as OutKast Ã?' Antwan A. Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi) and AndrÃ? Benjamin (a.k.a. AndrÃ? 3000) Ã?' as a pair of club performers in the Prohibition-era South. Harlem Nights hasn't exactly gone down in movie history as a cinematic touchstone, and Moulin Rouge was edited so frenetically as to cause a problem for those with pacemakers. But writer-director Bryan Barber, who's worked with OutKast before, translating their rap songs into delirious production numbers, knows how to get a juke joint jumpin'. The storyline's so riddled with clichÃ?s that you want to put it out of its misery, but nobody seems to have told the cast and crew. And when the singers start singing and the dancers start dancing, you can forget about the Cotton Club.
It's called the Church, a rowdy-crowd speakeasy named for the spiritual sustenance it brings to the God-fearing, devil's-music-worshiping citizens of a town called Idlewild, Georgia, where there isn't a white person in sight. As at Harlem's Apollo Theater, you can be laughed off the stage if you don't have the right stuff, and the right stuff, it seems, is this fusion of swing and bling, jazz and rap. Sent out to soothe the savage beast in an early scene, Patton's Rooster soon has the crowd eating out of his hand, the chorus girls circling him in their feather-pink outfits, like exotic birds. Born to perform, Rooster inherits the club after the previous owner gets plugged by the lethally handsome Trumpy, a gangsta given quiet menace by Terrence Howard. Unfortunately, Rooster has also inherited Trumpy, who wants his cut.
Meanwhile, over at the piano is Benjamin's Percival, a mortician's son whose own life is a little dead. Rooster and Percival have been friends since they were kids, looking up women's dresses from under the dinner table. ("Oh, them some sassy drawers," the bantam Rooster says.) But Percival doesn't have Rooster's flair for the spotlight. He's withdrawn, morose, haunted by the death of his mother...until Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) walks in the door. A torch singer in the Lena Horne mode, Angel comes on like she owns the place, but there's a vulnerable kitten inside that fearsome tiger; and Percival, finally looking up from the keyboard, where his avant-garde compositions have left most Church members scratching their heads, thinks she's the cat's meow.
Call it a strength or call it a weakness, but Rooster and Percival's stories don't so much link up as run on parallel tracks, Barber continually cutting back and forth between them. Anyone familiar with OutKast will recognize this approach, of course, Patton and Benjamin having gotten lots of mileage out of their non-collaborative collaboration. The movie may even be about their careers, Patton's Rooster playing to the crowd while Benjamin's Percival tickles the ivories of his far-flung imagination. Luckily, none of this subtext is allowed to get in the way of a good time. And the two leads, although they have few scenes together (and little acting experience), manage to hold the screen on their own, relying on their charisma to get them through the rough spots. Patton has a Forest Whitaker gravitas. Benjamin continues to channel Prince.
Barber has surrounded them with a wealth of African American talent, from Macy Gray to Patti LaBelle, Ving Rhames to Ben Vereen and Cicely Tyson. Vereen doesn't dance, strangely enough, nor does LaBelle sing. But singing and dancing are the heart and soul of Idlewild, the production numbers striving for, and often achieving, a kind of religious ecstasy. Hinton Battle's choreography Ã?' a combination of swing and hip-hop called swop Ã?' is, to put it mildly, da bomb. And the whole movie has this scapegrace vitality, like an old Max Fleischer cartoon or a vintage comic strip. On occasion, it veers dangerously close to minstrelsy, old racial stereotypes rearing their ugly heads, but those are the kind of risks that OutKast has been taking all along. At its best, Idlewild is nothing less than exhilarating.