Revisiting the Canon: Idlewild.

Last Saturday, TVOne aired Idlewild (as I’m sure they do pretty often) and I decided that, three years after my first DVD viewing, it might be time to give Outkast’s initially disappointing musical another try. So I buckled in for the two-and-a-half-hour screening (complete with edits and commercials) and now, I think I’ve figured out where it all went wrong.

First things first: the initial seven or so minutes, establishing the childhood friendship of Percival and Rooster, were really promising. With Bryan Barber at the helm, employing a lot of the exciting visual tricks he’d used to make some of Outkast’s most memorable videos (So Fresh, So Clean, Hey Ya!, Roses, The Way You Move), it seemed like the film could only get better. In the opening moments, we saw sepia stills of black folks whose eyes would suddenly animate, whenever the bassline dropped in the score. We watched young Percival reading music at his earliest piano lessons and giggling as the notes on the page began to grow legs and dance. We saw young Rooster inherit his dead gangster uncle’s flask and begin a lifelong affair with both booze and talking to the occasionally moving rooster emblem embossed in the silver.

Accompanying all of this was Percival’s voiceover, and admittedly, a lot of people hate voiceovers, with good cause. Not only can they be ubiquitous and redundant, they’re often used in place of actual onscreen character and plot development. Mercifully, Percival’s voiceover didn’t wind up infiltrating much of the film. It’s a good thing, because, as a character, Percival was dull as doorknobs and Andre’s somber tenor proved to be a bit of a downer.

Before I go on with an analysis of the film itself, I’d like to provide a little offscreen context.

Remember the first rumblings of an Outkast musical? It seemed like they started as early as 2004, two years before Idlewild actually hit theatres. The more info leaked about it, the more excited Outkast fans became: period piece, ’30s gangster flick, set in a speakeasy, complete with double-disc soundtrack. It sounded like a recipe for success, especially since this talk came hot on the heels of Antwan and Andre’s semi-solo success with 2003′s Speakerboxx/The Love Below. It was rumored that Andre’s half of that double-disc venture had been written as a concept album for another film that never came to fruition and, when the Idlewild soundtrack did drop (as a single disc), it seemed obvious the group had some experience writing concept/soundtrack songs. But we’ll come back to the Idlewild soundtrack later.

The bottomline: by 2004, Outkast could do no wrong and the as-yet-untitled Outkast Period Gangster Musical sounded like a small hallelujah to fans.

Then a year passed and little else emerged about the film. Just the same warmed-over whisperings, a few potential cast additions, and light murmurings that it could be finished by Winter ’05. In early 2006, there was talk of a spring release date and a few stills from the movie emerged, as proof that filming had, in fact, been taking place. But the release date kept being pushed (and pushed and pushed). Rumors of reshoots began surfacing and, as if to confirm the need for reshoots, the film got an August release date. (August is where all the films that aren’t promising enough to earn big as summer blockbusters go to die.)

The trailer looked great. But by the time the film actually opened, it seemed buzzed for it has fizzled and fans weren’t as excited to see it as they’d once been.

Couple waning enthusiasm with what actually wound up onscreen and you’ve got yourself a pretty underwhelming experience.

Here’s where things started to derail. The aforementioned opening, done in semi-montage with light dialogue, ends with a transition to grown-up Percival, waving at a hearse full of moonshine, being driven by young Rooster. From then on, we get a messy, noisy, convoluted picture, with three main plots that seem to be spinning in separate orbits.

Critics complained that, though Idlewild was billed as an Outkast musical, the film suffered by the leads’ onscreen avoidance of one another. It’s true; Antwan and Andre shared about three or four scenes in the entire film. Their lack of rapport renders the opening moot; Perci-voiceover claims that he and Rooster were inseparable, despite the former’s father’s warnings that Rooster was a bad influence. But as adults, Percival seems to have adopted his father’s stance on his old friend. He seems to almost bristle, whenever Rooster’s nearby. He treats him like a friend he’s outgrown, offering him half-hearted advice and never confiding in him about his own problems (of which he has plenty).

As a result, we’re watching these characters embark on completely separate journeys, even though they work together every night in the same club and supposedly have a twenty-year-plus bond. Percival struggles to overcome stage fright. Percival meets a pretty girl. Percival struggles to break free of the family business and his domineering father. Percival grieves when pretty girl is murdered.

Meanwhile, Rooster witnesses a double-homicide. Rooster struggles to gain control of the nightclub. Rooster fears for his life. Rooster, an avowed womanizer and equally avowed family man, struggles to keep his wife and half-dozen kids from leaving him. Rooster nearly dies (after witnessing a few more of his mentors’ murders).

Call me crazy, but these are the kinds of situations where you need your friends, if you’re lucky enough to have any, with all that drama afoot.

Then, as if this weren’t enough: the “pretty girl” Percival eventually dates is impersonating a semi-famous lounge singer and we have to hear her wax lofty about her dreams and her plans, complete with unnecessary flashbacks and a cameo by Patti Labelle.

Here’s what should’ve happened: rather than spending a measly eight minutes establishing their upbringing, the first third of the film should’ve been used to show Percival and Rooster’s childhood/late teens. Sally, the pretty girl (Paula Patton), should’ve been a girl Percival and Rooster saw in passing as little boys. Percival should’ve had a little love-at-first sight moment, but no conversation with her, and she should’ve moved away with her grandmother while they were all still around ten years old. When she returned as a singer, she shouldn’t have been impersonating anyone (that was a really unnecessary plot point with no real payoff), but she shouldn’t have recognized Percy; he should’ve recognized her and—gasp!—talked to Rooster about it.

Also, it must be said: Andre really underperformed in his role here. He never used his face to convey the appropriate expressions. When he first sees Sally, he stares at her blankly. Then later, when they’ve begun to mutually flirt (and it takes him a long time to get there; she has to do most of the pursuing), he talks about how she’s the prettiest thing he’s ever seen in Idlewild. If that’s the case, he should’ve at least raised an appreciative eyebrow the first time he saw her.

Percival is supposed to be strange, by virtue of being raised in a mortuary, and he is. He’s definitely really, really odd. That part comes across. But he’s also supposed to have this latent charisma that suggests a budding superstar. That, he never conveys, not even when he overcomes his stage fright (and apparent fear of women). So by the end of the film, when we see him starring in his own big budget song-and-dance revue, there’s something wholly unconvincing about it, even though he’s Andre 3000.

In that first hypothetical third of the film, Percival’s shyness should’ve been better established, as should’ve Rooster’s slow and steady nudging against it. Rooster, like his nickname suggests, is all puffed-chest bluster and, over the course of a lifelong friendship, some of that should’ve worn off on his best pal.

There were plenty of ways these characters could’ve interacted and played to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Using their friendship as the core of the film would’ve strengthened it more than any amount of reshooting could.

And speaking of the film’s core, the dramatic tension is supposed to center on Rooster’s fight to gain control of the nightclub where he performs and picks up side-women. His desire to run this club is really underdeveloped (which could’ve been remedied by a flashback scene of he and Percival sneaking off there as kids). We’re told his family business is moonshining, not managing entertainers. He seems pretty content with moonshining, womanizing, and “singing,” in fact.

Then, apropos of little, his gangster play-uncle is gunned down at the club one night, along with the club owner. These men are killed by a character with little to no development, played petulantly by Terrence Howard. And because Rooster witnesses the murders, he’s now both afraid of this cat and indebted to him.

There’s no context for Terrence’s reign of terror. He’s a righthand man on a power trip, which is fine, but who the hell is he? And what’s his point? Why does he want the club? Why does he want the power?

Here’s how these and other queries could’ve been quickly answered: this dude should’ve been introduced as a child. He and Rooster should’ve been childhood rivals and this dude should’ve been jealous of how the gangster community treated Rooster like a favorite son. This dude should’ve been the redheaded stephchild. And now he’s out for revenge.

Now we’ve successfully interwoven all three plots. Rooster knows Sally and Percival knows Terrence Howard—and each has a stake in the other’s successful resolution of their plots with these people. There’s so much potential for conversation, under these improved circumstances, it’s insane.

Finally, a word on the film’s (and Percival’s) quirkiness. As I alluded to earlier, Bryan Barber’s aesthetic really added excitement to this movie. The set dressings at the nightclub, the porched homes, the sprawling, crop-bearing fields and dirt roads all brought the ’30s alive. And Barber’s decision to randomly slow Hinton Battle’s choreography, as a male dancer throws a short-skirted girl high into the air, was exhilarating. All the dancing is top-notch, the costuming wonderful.

But let’s face it: the talking flask-rooster as an impetus for Rooster’s bad behavior was weak and overdone. Rooster was raised by gangsters; he doesn’t need an impetus for bad behavior.

And the dozen-or-more cuckoo clocks hanging over Percival’s bed, as a visual manifestation of his worries about his own mortality? Why not give him dialogue and backstory that imply he’s worried about this? As it stands, we have no idea what Percival’s worries are. As far as we know, he would’ve stayed with his father, vomiting every time someone called on him to lead a song at the club, had not this pretty girl showed up and started voicing motivations we never knew he had.

It’s clear he has unresolved issues about the death of his mother when he was four. It’s clear that he and his father don’t see eye-to-eye. But when he breaks into a random rendition of “Chronomentrophobia” upon waking up one morning, we don’t know why. Is he actually afraid of clocks and the passage of time? Nothing in his carriage or conversation suggests it—and if all we have to go on are his weird-ass clocks (which, incidentally, Sally sleeps under for the first time and makes absolutely NO comment about the next morning? Yeah, right.), Barber could’ve skipped the clocks and giving Percival a stronger contextual voice.

Speaking of weirdness for the sake of weirdness, what was up with the post-death scene where Sally’s on the table, and Percival’s applying powder and rouge with a big-ass brush and then delicately flicking mascara on her lashes, while crooning “She Lives in My Lap” (with very little expression on his face, mind you)… and then immediately following this up by attempting to hang himself?

There are several things wrong with this scene: we don’t know how long these two knew each other, as the length of their relationship is established by a montage of Sally and Percival singing “Movin’ Cool” in different costumes, but it couldn’t have been more than a month or two. Him taking her death terribly enough to kill himself is a little over the top for a two-month relationship, no?

He also dresses her in a bridal gown and puts an engagement ring on her finger, and while that could’ve been touching if I’d ever found their relationship convincing in the first place, that’s also a bit much (and so was the amount of makeup dude used on her face—especially after they had a super heavyhanded conversation about how he’d make her up if she died and he insisted she “wouldn’t need much”).

The thing is: Percival never seemed all that into this girl. At all. In fact, Percival seemed pretty asexual. Which is weird considering that he was played by a cultural sex icon. I mean, dude worked in a burlesque/brothel-like nightclub and never smiled at, flirted with, glanced at a chick until Paula Patton showed up—and even then, he just cast her a sort of noncommittal look on first view.

She dropped three hints and showed up at his house unannounced before he gave her any play. Then, later, when she declares she’s leaving town, he looks disappointed, but not destroyed and doesn’t even call her to talk about. Instead, she calls him and invites herself over again. And then, they consummate what was, up to this point, a nearly one-sided friendship.

Two scenes later, she’s dead. Frankly, on a scale of brothers’-reactions-to-their-girlfriends-getting-shot, Andre’s would be zero. (Omar Epps’ in Higher Learning would, of course, be ten). Sure, Percival cries, holding her, while she draws her last breath and says, rather cornily that she has to live because he, “has a new song for her,” but he knew she’d been shot for about five minutes by the time that happened. His eyes were actually cast in her direction when Sally took the bullet and when the camera went to him for reaction shot, he gave up more of the blankness that plagued much of his performance.

So here we are at the end of the film. In its final third, there are some really small, lovely moments—and they all belong to Rooster. When he encounters Cicely Tyson on the side of the road and gives all his filthy lucre to her and her stranded grandchildren, prompting her to call him an angel, to which he humbly replies, “I highly doubt that, ma’am,” your heart breaks a little. And when Rooster bangs on the door just in time to stop Percival from killing himself, then presents the tickets to Chicago Sally had purchased, the urgency in his voice as he insists, “She would’ve wanted this for you, man,” is the first moment we realize how much Rooster cares about Percival. And when Rooster preens as he pulls up to a big fancy house with a convertible Caddy, picking up his expanding family for church, you’re unexpectedly delighted that he was able to save his marriage.

It’s so weird. Idlewild has plenty of tiny glimpses at how much better a film it could’ve been with stronger writing, more attention to story, and less intention to make it look like a long-form music video. But you’ll have to take a writer’s word for that, because the film can’t be redone, at this point (at least not for another ten years, when it’s ripe for remakers’ pickings…).

On an adjacent note, though, that soundtrack did knock.

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

2 comments to Revisiting the Canon: Idlewild.

  • Seth in LA

    The sweetest words I ever read: “I think I’ve figured out where it all went wrong.”

    I remember well my anticipation for this film and my ultimate disappointment with the final product. When I saw the photo and headline, I thought you were about to pen a convincing argument for me to reconsider the film.

    But when I read the above words, I realized that you were NOT going to talk me into watching it again. Thank you.

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