Even on those occasions when it doesn’t work — and on those occasions when it aims for an emotional response that isn’t there — Bryan Barber’s Idlewild is a fascinating work. It’s perhaps the single most fascinating work of 2006 to date. It’s also one of the most downright peculiar ones.
At the end of the film, I fully understood why Universal only released the film to 750 theaters (the average these days is 3,000). It’s a tough film to market — perhaps an impossible one. Even seeing it with a small group of people who all thought it was wonderful, my initial response was bafflement — who did they think they were making this movie for? The inclusion of hip-hop — even extremely sophisticated and musically complex hip-hop — is bound to be off-putting to some viewers. And yet the film is otherwise too playful; too grounded in an earlier era of film; and too full of ragtime, jazz and swing-influenced music to cut it with the young urban crowd, who probably don’t even have a clue who Cab Calloway was.
As a purely cinematic experience, it rates an unqualified, “Wow!” The easiest way to describe the film is to say it’s like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) with an all-black cast. And while that’s essentially true — the spirit of Luhrmann’s film hangs over the entire proceedings — that’s a simplification that does a disservice to both films.
Still, the very fact that Idlewild is a deliberately anachronistic period piece and a musical and utilizes a frequently aggressive editing style, makes comparisons inescapable. Just as inevitable are a similar barrage of criticisms. This means that you’ll find Idlewild attacked for period inaccuracies much like Moulin was — mindless of the fact that the “inaccuracies” in question are there for a reason. I’m quite sure that writer-director Barber knows full well that no one would refer to $25,000 as “25 large” in 1935. Similarly, Luhrmann was fully conscious that Bohemian artists in 1899 Montmartre didn’t speak in lyrics from a T. Rex song. The point, however, is to make the works more accessible to a modern audience — and to draw a parallel between eras.
You will also find Idlewild charged with being an “extended music video,” and of being edited in what is blithely dismissed as “MTV style.” I say rubbish to both. Any musical film that attempts to bring the same sense of style to its non-musical sequences that it does to its musical numbers can be tagged as an “extended music video.” I, for one, fail to see that it’s a bad thing to view the space between songs as something more than just a dull patch to be slogged through to get to the next number. As for so-called “MTV editing,” rapid cutting between shots has been around since pioneer film director D.W. Griffith, who was doing it as early as 1916. Russian director Sergei Eisenstein took it even further in the 1920s. Leo McCarey used over 70 cuts for one musical number in Duck Soup (1933). Mark Sandrich patterned an entire film, Melody Cruise (1934), on what was then termed “rhythmic editing.” Richard Lester used it in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) took it to new levels. The idea in the sound era was to make the visuals as exciting as the music in a cinematic as well as performance sense. It was after all this that the technique was annexed by music videos and MTV. In all honesty, while it uses this approach, Idlewild is considerably less frenetic than Moulin Rouge! in its pacing, but neither could it be called restrained.
Set in the Depression-era South, Idlewild deliberately recalls the age of such films as Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1942) and Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943), along with much lower-budget independent films made specifically for black audiences. Like those films, it takes place in a completely black milieu. There are no white people to be seen. In the 1940s this served the function of neatly sidestepping questions of racial equality, since there was no one for the characters to be unequal to. That’s partly the case here as well, since a film set in 1935 would be hard-pressed to ignore the racial topic in an integrated setting. Another nod to those earlier films are the references to Cab Calloway. There are Calloway recordings on the soundtrack, a Calloway look-alike leading the Syncopated Church Orchestra, a pair of Nicholas Brothers-styled dancers and a dance sequence that emulates the “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” number from A Day at the Races (1937). In addition, the setting also helps to create a separate world where animated figures on sheet music and a talking rooster on a hip flask are more playful than out of place.
Idlewild is a film that is deeply respectful of the history of black art, but it approaches it in fresh and refreshing ways that illuminate those earlier contributions and suggest a far stronger connection between that earlier work and the present day. (Did anyone ever think that the dancing from these old films would lend itself to hip-hop? You may be surprised by how well it does.)
Granted, the storyline is slim: the history of very dissimilar lifelong friends (Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton) played out against a bootlegging story with gangsters muscling in on the friends’ nightclub. But most musical films have thin stories. It’s not what the form tends to be about. And the story here — while trading on easy cliches and a purely conventional, musical mistaken-identity subplot — has broader concerns than most. The film does err rather badly in its attempts at emotional resonance, trying too hard for the kind of kick at the end that Moulin Rouge! delivered (with too much the same sort of material as Moulin). It simply aims for a response it hasn’t earned. But the bulk of the film is so good, so impossibly full of life and invention that it’s an easy thing to forgive. I’m still not sure who this was made for, but I thank God — along with Messrs. Barber, Benjamin and Patton — that somebody made it at all. Don’t miss it, and don’t wait. It won’t be around long, and it will suffer on the home screen. Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke