Up until about ten minutes ago, I would have given a thoroughly mixed review of Idlewild. I came out of the movie satisfied with the excitement and the style, but a little skeptical about the narrative, whose first hour seemed a broken record of drama film clichés. But if there’s anything film studies has taught me, it’s that thinking about a movie can improve the overall experience, and that a film becomes a lot better when its themes have been identified, even retrospectively.
Idlewild featured the acting debuts of Outkast (“Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton), and it was the first big-screen endeavor of Outkast’s music video director, Bryan Barber. I was initially attracted to the movie because I love the word “Idlewild”… it’s a pair of syllables that affects my brain like a code word. The word “idle” suggests a sort of compulsive laziness and libertarian apathy, and the addition of the word “wild” makes me think of a maritime anti-hero whose fury is spontaneous, unreasonable, but perfectly appropriate to the way he lives his life. I also happen to love the band Idlewild, a Scottish rock outfit.
I also liked the stylistic decisions embodied in this movie, which were apparent in the trailer. I love the rogue spirit of hip-hop (especially when it subverts the urban thug paradigm), I appreciate the class and hustle of the prohibition-era underground, and I fully support their synthesis. Idlewild didn’t let me down… the crackling big-band aesthetic and the halting improvisation of vinyl found a compelling common ground, securing my admiration of Idlewild’s fresh-faced director.
Unfortunately, where Idlewild’s aesthetic was well-executed, its narrative was a little green around the ears. The conclusion worked fairly well, first in the speakeasy and then in the darkness of Percival’s living room, but the road was paved with tired filmic clichés that became comical at times. There was a slow-motion walk through the rain (a la The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix), a bullet-stopping bible (a la Disney’s Three Musketeers), a timid performer empowered by the gaze of her True Love (a la Save the Last Dance), booze transported in a coffin (a la Some Like It Hot), and all sorts of smaller-scale film tropes. Every scene seemed to be a music video, building up to its own short-term conclusion.
So I liked the synthetic, derivative style of this film, but I was skeptical about the artificial, derivative plot. I’ve only just come to realize that this is a double-standard. If I’m content with music that samples and shuffles and remixes the climaxes of classic tunes, and I can accept the same aesthetic in Idlewild’s stylistic choices, then why am I so hesitant about accepting a patchwork plot of film trivia? Honestly, I kind of enjoy going back through this movie and figuring out why each narrative moment seems familiar.
Turns out I was looking for a film in a pure pastiche… a remix movie, plastered together from a series of tried-and-true ideas, musical, aesthetic, and narrative. Barber dropped the Shakespeare (slightly misquoted) in between beats of magical negro and Harold and Maude, stitching together a sharp-edged answer to Moulin Rouge’s ballad sentimentality. When I think too hard, I come to the erroneous conclusion that I dislike derivative media. Isn’t that ridiculous?