I called Big Boi on the telephone,
I said, “Hey hold up ‘fore we put out another song,”
Say, no matter what goes down, we stand strong,
Cause ain’t nothin changed (it’s simple).
Now let’s make a musical.
–OutKast, “Life is Like a Musical”
“All the world’s a stage,” narrates Percival (André Benjamin), à la As You Like It. Everyone has his specific role to play, even, he riffs, “at a funeral.” Percy’s particular interest stems from his profession. Like his father (Ben Vereen) before him, he’s a mortician, and so, very aware of the ways that bodies can be disfigured and rearranged, how life and death are performances for audiences.
But even if Percy is good at what he does — and his father keeps a scrapbook of the bodies they have prepared for viewing, photos keeping perfectly composed memories — he’s reluctant to continue. His real love, he confides, is the piano. And while he works at the funeral home by day, by night, he cuts loose on stage at “Church,” a speakeasy/whorehouse where his best friend from childhood, Rooster (Antwan A. Patton) keeps the books and sings a little.
As different in disposition and expectation as they can be, Percival and Rooster nonetheless maintain a firm mutual loyalty and genuine affection for one another. And while Idlewild, “the OutKast movie,” seems on its surface to be split into two stories, with André and Big Boi sharing the frame only occasionally (at a funeral, a shootout, and a denouement), it is, on closer inspection, an elaborate, sometimes too-busy, riff on the theme laid out in Percy’s introduction: the thrilling, frustrating artifice of life and death.
Often more like a two-hour music video (see: the extraordinary “Roses”) than a fully plotted movie, Idlewild extends the twofer project of OutKast’s 2003 double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Frequent OutKast collaborator Bryan Barber’s first feature also tweaks gangster movie conventions with brilliant choreography, hip-hop beats, and inventive images: the song-and-dance numbers at Church can be breathtaking, with slowed motion, gymnastics-style flips, and brilliant colors — coordinated, of course.
Set in 1935, in Idlewild, Georgia, the movie opens with a quick and visually quirky trot though what seems a standard best-friends-doomed-to-go-wrong history (the sort that shaped a series of Jimmy Cagney-Pat O’Brien movies during the ’30s and ’40s). Their class differences are established by their family situations: shy Percival is expected to follow a “proper” path, serving his father tea and wearing a tie while he attends to corpses in the basement (a brief, later scene that has Percy crunching toast while his father reads the paper across the breakfast table wordlessly makes clear the son’s discomfort with the life laid out for him).
By contrast, Rooster is all about the hustle. Flashy-dressed and fast-talking, he carries with him a flask adorned with a rooster, animated and prone to give him bad-behavior advice. Granting access to what goes on in Rooster’s mind — his vulnerability to typical temptations of alcohol and women, despite and because of his wife Zora’s (Malinda Williams) insistence that he stop cheating on her and look after their daughters — the rooster on the flask is only one piece of the film’s inventive use of animation. Repeatedly, frames freeze and morph, to suggest menacing faces or penetrating gazes, Percy or Rooster’s perception of their many audience members, measuring them, deciding their fates.
No wonder Percy prefers the relatively coherent chaos of Church. Whether he’s playing a gorgeous bluesy number for Taffy (Macy Gray) or a cocky hip-hop song for Rooster, Percy looks at ease on stage, immersed in the noise and movement. He mostly stays out of the darker corners of the business, where Rooster steps when he’s not on stage surrounded by girls in pink feathers. Here’s where the gangsters come in. Weary of overseeing proceeds and activities at Church, Spats (Ving Rhames) means to retire, and suggests he wants to hand the business over to Rooster, who’s “good with numbers.” He agrees to hear out Ace’s (Faizon Love) plea for the position, but both meet violent ends at the hands of flat-out crazy Trumpy (Terrence Howard). An unseen witness to the murders, Rooster then tries to make his own profits by managing Church (buying “hooch” from local bootleggers) while paying off Trumpy, who decides the place belongs to him.
Percival has his own problems, trying to balance working for his father with playing the piano, while also falling in love with new and strangely nervous singer Angel (Paula Patton). Their romance is about as regular as they come: Angel alternates between seeming femme fatale and Priscilla Lane circa The Roaring Twenties. Her secret doesn’t keep her from appreciating Percy’s talent: he writes a song for her to perform, schools her on its delivery, and essentially makes her a star (the montage with lights and low angles and cheers underscores the artifice of the plot point). She embodies Percy’s desire to leave Idlewood, and when she offers to buy them a couple of tickets to Chicago, where she’s booked to perform, he suddenly imagines another life, away from his father and the basement and the formaldehyde.
Throughout the film, Percy and Rooster’s efforts to escape their disparate confines are connected through clever editing and color-scheming. When Rooster knocks on a door, Percy answers another; when violence looms in Percy’s scene, it’s fulfilled in Rooster’s. Idlewild‘s tone is similarly spliced together, thematically connecting blood-splattery violence and fabulous dancing. It’s hard not to think of The Cotton Club here, though Idlewild doesn’t frame its corruptions and performances with whiteness, focusing instead on local, intracommunity tensions and deliberations. While this decision skirts the obvious organization of power in 1935 Georgia, it’s of a piece with the film’s fantastical combinatory strategy, revising movie “history” by way of the present (the old movies were hardly accurate with regard to race and racism, either).
Between Trumpy’s increasingly psychotic aggressions, Angel’s flashbacking, and Rooster’s seemingly divinely ordained encounter with a needy grandmother (Cicely Tyson) and her car full of kids, Idlewild certainly has too much going on. But it finds its way back to the performances of life and death, via a doubling of dead women’s images that’s both trite and disturbing.
Percy is understandably upset when he discovers his father, drunk and dancing with a photo of his dead wife in a coffin, the image he made at no small expense. But the son is also enamored of an image, the stage singer he’s made, light-skinned and slender like his mama. Women framed and frozen in time can be remembered as their men need them — flawless and forever possessed. It’s not a notion invented in Idlewood, but unlike the dancing or the doubled-up plot, it’s not reinvented here either.