Sunday, August 27, 2006



I've been looking forward to this film for a few years now, since back when it was an HBO TV movie. Outkast is the best hip hop group of all time and they've done some really fantastic videos. This film harkens back to classic musicals of the 30s quite heavily, even more so than something like Chicago, a film that refused to indulge in the basic pleasure/absurdity of the musical genre, the idea that characters will just start singing. In this film, characters will sing to show their feelings, though not that often. The film functions as a fusion of two classic 30s genres, the backstage musical and the gangster film.

A lot of reviewers seem to take issue with the film's basic conceit, the idea that Outkast's hip hop music exists in the 1930s. Whenever you're watching a movie, you have to accept the idea that the people on screen aren't actors, they're characters in a story, and that what happens to them isn't the result of a series of choices made by the writer it's due to the hand of fate or what have you. So, if you're going to accept the basic fictional nature of the universe, is it really such a stretch to imagine a world where hip hop existed in the 1930s? If a rapper had made a sudden appearance in Gladiator, that could be trouble, but this is the world the film created and I don't find the rapping out of place at all. Most of the songs have instrumentation that makes them sound like what rap would be like if it was out in the 1930s, Rooster's opening number, "Bowtie," fits perfectly with the club atmosphere, and is staged in a really exhilirating way with swooping camera and dynamic cutting. Tracking back, the opening credits sequence reminded me of Samurai Champloo, with its transposing of a hip hop aesthetic into a period film.

The major criticism of the film that I do think is valid is the fact that the story has a lot of cliches. On Andre's side, the woman singer who's got talent but just needs a break and the artist who just needs to get his stuff heard are both stock figures from 30s musicals. The only thing that could make it more cliche is if the real Angel broke her ankle on show night giving Sally the chance to to perform. With Big Boi, the 30s gangster aesthetic has been done to death, as has the roguish, but likable low level hood like Rooster. He actually gets saved when a bullet hits his bible, is there a more cliched situation?

However, I don't think this is a problem. For one, the film uses these aesthetics and setups, but then messes with them enough that it feels fresh. If you're emotionally engaged with the story, it doesn't really matter if it's not the newest territory. Look at the "Take Off Your Cool" sequence, on the one hand, it's totally cliche to have the two characters meet up and kiss in the rain. Yet, because you're attached to both of them, the moment is still fulfilling. Plus, the shots of them walking in slo mo in the rain are very cool looking. The song's one of my favorites off The Love Below and it makes for one of the best shot/edited sex scenes I've seen. It's difficult to pull off a sex scene without taking the audience out of the story and making them more aware of the actors themselves than the characters. And music is always difficult because you don't want something that sounds like a porn soundtrack, nor does R. Kelly style R&B usually work. Michael Mann's music choice for the Tubbs/Trudie sex scene in Miami Vice was one of his few missteps. However, the subdued "Take Off Your Cool" enhances the emotion of the scene and makes you feel the emotions the charactes are going through. Really well done.

So, I'd argue that since the story works on an emotional level, it can get away with the cliches. It's the same deal as Joss's tendency to kill off characters after moments of happiness, on the one hand, it's a bit tired, but that doesn't make "Seeing Red" or "A Hole in the World" any less powerful. And I think the emotions of the story, particuarly on the Andre side were really satisfying. I loved watching Percival and Angel work through the song and then succeed in making the audience like it. The gangster stuff generally works too, though I do think that Sunshine Ace was a character who totally didn't work and I'm not sure why he was played in such a cartoonish way.

Ultimately, the film earns its perhaps cliched happy ending because the characters go through so much on the way. Terence Howard's Trumpy was a very menacing character, and the fact that he was so heavy meant that all the characters were in real danger. I wasn't expecting Angel to die and the fact that she did means that the ending feels much more earned. The characters have gone through some bad stuff, so we're even more happy when they're finally successful. To some extent, it's odd to end with Percival so happy considering her death shortly before, however, I think it works because it shows that Angel did make a major impact on him. For the first time, he has the confidence to really express himself and he's found out that his songs do have the power to captivate an audience.

Most of the film's high points are the musical number, however I think the story itself works a lot better than most of the 1930s musicals it's homaging. I was always looking forward to the next musical number, but the gangster stuff is very successful and Percival's romantic subplot is great too.

That said, the musical sequences are the most memorable part. "Bowtie" was fantastic, and I wish we got to see a couple more Rooster performances, or at least a Rooster/Percival collaboration. "She Lives in Your Lap" is another highlight off The Love Below and it was used in a really odd, but successful sequence. The mortuary subplot brought back some memories of Six Feet Under, and I was expecting the corpses to start dancing at some point. However, the subplot pays off nicely with that sequence. On the album, "She Lives..." is a very sexy, nasty song. Here, some of the instrumental elements are removed and it becomes more somber, perfectly fitting his sadness at that moment. It was a really unexpected use of the song, and it worked perfectly.

I think the film could have done with a few more songs in general, only during "Bowtie" and the final sequence do we see fully staged musical numbers. The final setup is clearly aping Busby Berkley's stuff, though it never ascends into the bizarre realm that his work did. Andre is great there, but I think Barber could have gone a bit further. That said, both of those songs are really fun and great to watch.

I find it odd that this film has gotten a generally lukewarm reaction while something like Chicago got massive acclaim. I think it's partially due to people accepting more oddness from works that are part of the canon. If you came out with something like Hamlet today, people would be saying that the ghost of his dad appearing is ridiculous and the ending is just excessively violent. However, because it already exists, people just accept it. When you do something new, like this movie, people aren't prepared to accept the conceits, the idea that hip hop can mix with the 30s, or that light musical numbers can mix with heavier subject matter.

This film, like a Miami Vice or Revenge of the Sith, certainly has some flaws, but it's got so much good stuff that I find it hard to believe people didn't enjoy it. I was really hooked in to the emotional story and the film had some of the most consistently exciting visuals in recent film. It's a film that's always entertaining and intelligent. The film is clearly being pitched towards an 'urban' audience, but I think this film could have a lot of mainstream appeal. I could see old white people going and enjoying this movie as much as teenagers would.

So, I always enjoy a well done musical and this one is great. The music is top notch, the visuals great and the story well done and engaging. I would highly reccomend checking out Idlewild.

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