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Lost and found

Andr Benjamin of OutKast tickles the ivories  and - Paula Pattons fancy  in Idlewild.
  • Andr Benjamin of OutKast tickles the ivories and Paula Pattons fancy in Idlewild.

*Idlewild (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Tinseltown
I'm a boring, unhip white girl what do I know about the multi-platinum-selling, multi-Grammy-winning hip-hop/R&B group OutKast? Nuthin', is what, except that all the kids today are into them. And still, I loved Idlewild.

Conversely, even if you don't know that this is basically The OutKast Movie, you may well love it, too. This is fantasy like we like our movies to be, a cinematic phantasmagoria of a dream version of the past of bootleggers and flappers and gangsters and speakeasies and Josephine Baker-esque bare-breasted showgirls in a lush, rich, ridiculously romantic tapestry of sex, violence and friendship and love and music and dancing and all those dramatic and electrifying things. It has nothing to do with OutKast.

Except that it does, too, in a way: Idlewild reconnects the urgent street cred of today's most original pop musicians rappers to the urgent street cred of the stylish criminals of the Depression and Prohibition.

It's not a coincidence that "gangsta" has come to describe these entertainers, even when they don't go to the extremes of actual street-corner gun battles with rivals. Last time there was a generation like Generation X expedient and cynical and more concerned with the concrete reality of making a living in a tough time than with loftier matters they were called the Lost Generation, and Idlewild rediscovers them. And part of why this enthralling film is so fresh is because if you're like me, thirtysomething and feeling the pinch of a dead economy and worrying that things are never gonna be any better than they are now, and probably a lot worse then, well, these people here feel like us now. There's an air of delicious inevitability about Idlewild, like it's about damn time someone recognized history coming around again to bite us on the ass.

This is a beautiful two-hour music video, written and directed by Bryan Barber, who's been OutKast's visual force for years, and choreographed by Tony winner Hinton Battle. He invented a whole new kind of dancing called "swop" a combination of swing and hip-hop moves, so you're seeing the lindy and breakdancing at the same time to go along with music that is lovely and exhilarating. Sometimes it's new stuff written and performed by OutKast Andr Benjamin and Antwan A. "Big Boi" Patton and sometimes it's vintage Cab Calloway or Bessie Smith, and often it's a blending of the classic and the contemporary.

It's all very Moulin Rouge!, in a lot of ways, from that time-out-of-time feeling to its tale of tragic bohemian entertainers. Benjamin plays Percival, a shy piano player who writes fantastic songs but can't break free of his domineering father (Ben Vereen), the local mortician; his oldest childhood friend is the slick, fast-talking Rooster (Patton), who has recently taken over the running of the speakeasy in their small hometown of Idlewild, Ga. Their lives are complicated by the arrival of the mysterious singer Angel (Paula Patton), as well as the interference of small-time gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard).

And if how much of their story goes is a tad conventional, well, call it "classic" instead because from its rowdy spiritual energy to its visual grace notes of whimsy, Idlewild is at once timeless and timely, an elegant and elemental little masterwork.

MaryAnn Johanson

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