Friday, September 15, 2006
Written and Directed by Bryan Barber
Hip-Hop duo, Outkast, has always been at the forefront of music video innovation. The man behind many of these innovations is director, Bryan Barber. With their Southern prohibition-era musical, IDLEWILD, the trio expands their quirky visual gimmickry to feature length size stimulation. The film opens at a funeral where we are introduced to Percival and Rooster (Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi) as they introduce themselves to each other. Flipping back and forth between black and white and vibrant colour, the images are manipulated like a vinyl LP being spun by a DJ. Eyes in frozen frames shift from left to right on beat with the jazzed-up Hip-Hop musical bed while the moving images jitter to the scratches of the record. And as musical notes come to life on the sheet music atop Percival’s upright piano, so does the film. It has an energy that invigorates your mind while it exhilarates your dancing feet. You feel that much cooler just for being there. Then, almost as quickly as your heart rate shot up, it slows down to its normal murmur as the lifeless story tries its hardest to suck all the force out of Barber’s hip fresh style. Pulling double duty as director and writer, Barber both saves and ruins his own film at the same time.
In recent years, media reports have reveled in telling the story of one of hip-hop’s most successful acts. Big Boi enjoys a lifestyle of excess that money can buy him – lots of booze, cigars and parties. Andre 3000 on the other hand seeks to purify his soul. Their last musical recording found them laying down tracks individually, encouraging rumours that the two could barely stand each other. There is plenty of opportunity for drama here that could translate easily to the screen. At first, this appears to be the story that Barber intends to tell. Percival and Rooster meet as young boys. Rooster is always getting into trouble while Percival must please his strict mortician father. As adults, Percival is still leading a straight, god-fearing existence while Rooster boozes it up at a club called Church as the major musical attraction. The way in which the story is set up leads you to think that you are about to watch a story in which two friends with two different motivations learn that they have an unbreakable bond despite all their differences – the kind of bond that will help them get through all of their struggles. Instead, in what I can only assume is a decided effort to get away from the story we are all familiar with, Barber takes his two characters in different directions. He takes them each so far from each other that, like their solo musical efforts, they barely end up on screen together. Their separate story paths range from banal to cliché to ridiculous and all the while there is a looming confusion as to why the friendship was established as the unshakeable center to begin with.
Another reason Barber should leave the writing duties to someone else is his complete lack of understanding of the female character. Paula Patton and Melinda Williams play the only two female characters of significance. Patton plays Angel Davenport, a sultry diva chanteuse who takes a liking to Percival, presumably because he respects her while everyone else, including the camera, ogles her. From the moment she makes her appearance on screen, with the first of a few fetishized close-ups of her feet, she turns the head of all the men and enrages all the chorus girls at Church. With her temptress persona cemented as her purpose straight away, it seems entirely bizarre when there is some background given to her in the later part of the film. Williams plays Zora, Rooster’s wife and mother to his numerous children. She scolds him for staying out all night and accuses him of fooling around on her while he’s boozing, to the point that she tries to run over a couple of girls she assumes her husband has been with. Of course, despite her constant complaints, she waits for him at home like the good wife she is, believing she’s won an argument because she has forced Rooster to take her and the kids shopping. With few exceptions, the remaining female cast members fill in as dancers who appear in little clothing that reveals plenty as they dance and shake around the men that love them. Their hollow, unmotivated dialogue becomes laughable as the film progresses.
Barber has a unique imagination. From a wall of cuckoo clocks cuckoo-ing melodically to a Matrix-ification of a swing dance sequence, IDLEWILD pushes its visual motif to the limits and dazzles the viewer. However, this is a musical, not a music video. Not only are solid story developments vital to get the viewer past the suspense of disbelief when people start to sing out of nowhere but the pacing, placement and relevance of musical numbers needs to be consistent. As Outkast rap on about the moment or their surroundings, they are not bringing the film forward but rather stopping it still. IDLEWILD could be recut into a series of four or five videos, leaving all the pointless filler on the floor and allowing Barber to shine on the right screen.