THE air around OutKast's "Idlewild" is humid and thick as gravy, and I'm not talking about the summer haze enveloping the fictional Southern town where the film takes place. The movie starring hip-hop's top duo and the sort-of soundtrack sharing its name -- both out this week -- are being greeted with a grim earnestness that seems quite overblown, given that pop stars are always making entertainingly flawed cinematic forays and off-kilter soundtracks to go with them.
Internet tastemakers are declaring "Idlewild" "the end of 'Kast." More positive reviews still say the record's awfully weird. Even the deluge of flattery in glossy magazines, expected for a $27-million HBO-sponsored release, hangs heavy with awkward questions about whether Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton are even speaking and which Prince movie will finally provide "Idlewild's" best analogy: the miraculously successful "Purple Rain" or the embarrassing "Under the Cherry Moon."
It's not a condemnation to note that "Idlewild" has a lot in common with Prince's first film flop. Both projects followed a breakthrough moment for a forward-thinking act who'd made it deeper into the mainstream than anyone expected: the legendary "Purple Rain" for Prince and the diamond-certified double-disc "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" for OutKast. Both films tell the classic story of artist as outlaw, sacrificing conventional happiness in favor of sensuality and creative inspiration; Prince's Christopher Tracy is a gigolo shot down while on the run with his forbidden love, while Benjamin and Patton's Percival and Rooster are two small-town showmen who escape drudgery nightly at a joint paradoxically named Church, only to court death pursuing their Cotton Club dreams. Both films draw nostalgic connections between contemporary black culture and the golden age of speak-easy piano-tinkling -- Prince went vintage by sporting a pencil mustache and bolero hat; Benjamin and Patton opt for zoot suits and breeches. And both film "soundtracks" (Prince's was called "Parade") touch lightly upon prewar musical styles to further the musical experiments their makers had already begun.
For Prince, that meant mixing funk and psychedelia with a jazz-inspired sense of harmony and rhythm. For OutKast, it means borrowing from Prince -- and his own borrowings from disco-era speak-easy revivalists August Darnell, Chic and the Pointer Sisters -- to connect hip-hop not just to jazz, but to the stream of backtalk and risk-taking that carried African American artists from blackface to black pride. This reach for the long view lends "Idlewild" the film its best qualities -- though certain opportunities remain unrealized -- and makes "Idlewild" the album hard to grasp.
Let's consider the film first. Writer-director Bryan Barber's script fruitfully connects hip-hop's gangsterism to a pre-Civil Rights era in which entrepreneurs like Rooster relied on bootlegging, showgirl-pimping and whatever else to get by, despite isolation and discrimination. This was a time of elegance, but also of violence and marginalization, and Barber's bright underworld captures all of that. And choreographer Hinton Battle does an outstanding job showing how break dancing evolved out of the Lindy Hop; the dance sequences alone make "Idlewild" worth seeing.
Visually, "Idlewild" takes the vivid approach used in other semi-surreal period pieces like "Beloved," "Chicago" and especially "O Brother, Where Art Thou"; this isn't a past anyone could remember, it's a past people dream about and turn into myth. The characters Benjamin and Patton play are supposedly autobiographical. They're also archetypal. Patton's Rooster, family man by day and jump-blues singing hooch-runner by night, represents the good man made shady by the system, while Benjamin's Percival, a piano-playing mortician's son who could use to leave the basement more often, is the individualist who can triumph only through the singularity of fame. In other words, Patton is Prince in "Cherry Moon" and Benjamin is Prince in "Purple Rain"; similar characters appear throughout African American culture, including Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and the biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
"Idlewild" stops short of fully exploring these archetypes. Patton and Benjamin can both hold the screen and are great in their musical sequences, but sorry, they aren't actors -- Terrence Howard, as the villain Trumpy, blows them into dust when he's on camera -- and their limited expressiveness detracts from the film's hallucinatory edge. The plot fails them too, as it takes turns we've seen in a dozen melodramas. Despite a supporting cast that goes for broke (beyond Howard, Ving Rhames, Faizon Love and Macy Gray stand out), gorgeous costumes, those killer dance sequences and enlivening elements like Rooster's talking whiskey flask and the dancing musical notes that inspire Percival, Barber and his two leads ultimately play things pretty straight.