This is true even though the essential taproot is not past talent jamborees like "Stormy Weather" or "The Cotton Club" but the giddy pastiche of music videos. That's a rather tawdry lineage in modern movies, and yet the debut director and writer, Bryan Barber, gives it an exciting push and rush.Utilizing the lead rap talents of OutKast (whose videos he did), Barber has Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton as stars. But it's in the the Depression '30s of fictional Idlewild, Ga. Percival (Benjamin), earnest son of a truly stiff undertaker (Ben Vereen, stripped of musical clout), grows up as the pal of jumpy Rooster (Patton), raffish accomplice of a bootlegging hood (Ving Rhames, performance ruled by cigar).
Benjamin tightens his talent as the shy, repressed composer Percival, while Patton is looser as Rooster but has a handicap. His kid self is played by punchy scene-grabber Bobb'e J. Thompson, whose exit is a real loss. And while Benjamin has great dignity and quiet charisma, and Patton as his rip-around friend pinballs like Sportin' Life, neither is a matured actor.
Faizon Love as big Ace, Macy Gray as Taffy and the threatening Terrence Howard as a killer tend to stage their own parties. Add a pungent slice of Patti LaBelle, even Cicely Tyson as a black Ma Joad with a jalopy full of kids, and the stars (including Paula Patton as an insecure singer and love dish) start to look boxed and crowded (and some of the humor is junk, like the gag about a stuttering hoodlum).
The true star is Barber, his fine team including cinematographer Pascal Rabaud. Barber stages terrific violence, use dancers well as drilled squads if not as soloists, tosses in luscious retro images and some funny bits of animation, and keeps it all flowing except a few scenes of hokum. The sources, clearly, are not only videos but Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, even "Chicago" and "Cabaret."
Musically, the film is an odd duck. The '30s black tradition, from Armstrong to Basie, from Hawkins to Holiday, from Tatum to Ellington, is so great that Barber was smart to avoid direct collision, except in small elements. But the rap tunes are overpowered by the riotous dances, don't connect to roots resoundingly, and are not always smartly miked to highlight the words. The gospel tradition also hovers vaguely, for the whorish music club is called The Church and a Bible does plot duty. Still, even Robert Altman partly faltered with his jazz-loving '30s homage, "Kansas City," and Barber has his own newcomer's zeal and expressive rampancy.
Talent deserves great movies, not just more showcases, though this picture is juiced with an awful lot of expressive pleasure. As Howard can attest, you can get great reviews and an Oscar bid with a potent film like "Hustle & Flow," but only modest returns. Sad to say, but something of a "color line" still seems to endure in multiplex commerce.
Easy to peel apart for flaws, "Idlewild" is also easy to enjoy if you go with its jived earthiness. As entertainment, it beats watching Samuel L. Jackson kill snakes, and much else right now.
A Universal Pictures release. Director, writer: Bryan Barber. Cast: Andre Benjamin, Antwan Patton, Terrence Howard, Ben Vereen, Macy Gray, Ving Rhames, Malinda Williams. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Rated R. 3 Stars.