Sunday, February 17, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Idlewild (2006)

For rising bands that can do no wrong, nothing can quite stop momentum in its tracks like a vanity project.

Witness the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the first "film" that the Fab Four wrote and directed themselves. It was pretty bad (though amazingly prescient compared to the music videos that would emerge 15 years later). Somewhat unfairly, critics took its shortcomings as a cue to unleash all their pent-up hostility about the band that previously could do no wrong. It was condemned and mocked in the press, and certainly did nothing to prevent the band from eventually drifting into their eventual breakup.

I have no idea what Idlewild will do to OutKast's career (word is the duo will release at least one more album), but there's no doubt that the film was perhaps the first misstep in what had been a pretty charmed career.

Only the second rap/hip hop artists to win the Grammy for album of the year in 2005, Andre 3000 and Big Boi were definitely riding high when they started filming Idlewild with their longtime video director Bryan Barber at the helm and an impressive cast that included Terrence Howard, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen and Ving Rhames – not to mention fellow musicians Macy Gray and Patti LaBelle. The New York Times Magazine even did a lengthy piece on Andre and Big Boi to promote the project, an almost unheard of sign of respect from the old gray lady.

Released in August 2006, however, the film disappeared in a matter of weeks. Most of the critics savaged the film, with it getting a rating of 47 percent rotten from Produced on a $15 million budget, it only managed to earn $12 million at the box office. On top of that, there was controversy about the location of Idlewild in the film – Georgia according to Outkast, Michigan according to the real Idlewild where well-to-do blacks spent their leisure time at the turn of the century.

Did the film deserve such a beating? Probably not. Forget about the plot for a moment, with its cliches of a doomed romance, double-dealers and an underdog's rise to the top of the local bootlegging operation. This was an extremely stylish piece of work with the kinds of visual inventiveness not seen in a musical movie since Purple Rain (1984) – a vanity project that fared much better. The early 20th century feel of the movie felt just right and the dance sequences – choreographed by three-time Tony winner Hinton Battle – are pretty amazing.

Then there's the music. Sure, there are standard Outkast songs on the soundtracks. But to my ears, they were greatly outnumbered by valiant attempts by the duo to fit in with the period. Andre 3000, as eclectic as ever, even manages a credible simulation of an early 20s Broadway musical number with "When I Look In Your Eyes," which closes the movie. And then there's his dirtwater stomp, "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry About Me)," which places a Delta blues guitar in the middle of the proceedings.

Play "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry About Me)"

I also love the creativity of the first single "Morris Brown," in which Big Boi uses the marching band from the historically black Atlanta college of the same name to provide the backing for his rap.

But Big Boi's best work comes on "The Train," where you truly see how this impressive artist absorbs everything he listens to and uses it in is work. You have sitars, Philly Soul brass, audio clips from the movie, a loping hip-hop track and some killer hooks combining into one great song. Why this wasn't a crossover hit in the way that "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move" were eludes me to this day.

Play "The Train (featuring Sleepy Brown & Scar)"

In any case, this film is a solid rental that I highly recommend. And it has a soundtrack that I probably will be listening to for several years to come. Which is a high achievement for any soundtrack, let alone one from OutKast.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Idlewild, the album, is an extremely underrated and misunderstood piece of work. It works in conjunction with the film, which explains their concurrent releases. But since so many people evaded the movie, or trashed it, the album was almost entirely overshadowed. Also, critics who gave the album negative reviews spent too much hassling OutKast for their increasingly fueled breakup rumors to the neglect of the album's actual contents. Hopefully, it will be rediscovered one day for the brilliance it is.