In this showcase film for the rap duo OutKast, Percival, the piano playing son of a local undertaker, and Rooster, the orphaned descendent of a bootlegger, are unlikely friends living in the backwater Georgia town of Idlewild. The two meet as boys and forge a bond while sitting under a table at a funeral home looking up the dresses of female patrons.
As adults, in the 1930s, both men perform their music at a local speakeasy that frequenters call "Church." But there are no stained glass windows here. This sweaty establishment is owned by the fat and seamy Sunshine Ace, who goads the performers by the points of his sharp words. Quiet and timid, Percival is filling time as he reluctantly waits to take over the mortuary. The womanizing Rooster just wants to continue his boozing and wife-deceiving ways.
When strikingly beautiful chanteuse Angel arrives (sending Percival into a tailspin), and club owner Ace is killed (leaving his speakeasy to Rooster), the two men's lives are suddenly upended. Percival has to decide if he should leave his father and take Angel and his music to Chicago. While Rooster must figure out a way to stay ahead of Trumpy, Ace's killer.
Rooster's wife, Zora, is a good woman who loves her family and desperately wants to pull her husband out of the mess of a life that he wallows in. She pleads, and threatens (even shooting a shotgun in the air to get several women to leave her husband alone) and eventually has to pack up and move in order to protect her children. [Spoiler Warning] Her actions are part of the reason Rooster eventually decides to turn his life around and leave the speakeasy behind him. Back together, Rooster and Zora buy an orchard (a dream they always had) and start a new life. At the end of the film, Rooster puts his whiskey flask in the back of a closet (a symbolic turning away from his old life).
Percival comes to Angel's aid and helps her find the courage to reach for her dreams of being a singer. Later, Angel returns the favor by helping Percival see that he has been hiding behind his father's wishes, even though he wants to try to make it as a musician.
There is a turning point for Rooster when he comes upon a vehicle stopped in the middle of a back road. He cautiously approaches it (with gun drawn) and discovers an elderly woman stranded with five grandchildren and no money. He asks her what she's doing there and she explains that the "Good Lord" had sent her to that spot to wait (seven hours so far). Rooster gives her a roll of money and she calls out, "Thank you Jesus!" Then she gives Rooster a Bible that later, literally, saves his life.
Rooster and Rose (Ace's girlfriend) are shown having loud, vocal sex in the back seat of a car. He's clothed, but she is in a bra and skirt. She puts her legs up on his shoulders and we see her sensual expressions as he gives her oral sex. Percival and Angel also couple, naked, with hand-cupped breasts and bare buttocks.
Elsewhere, a woman, naked from the waist up, runs down a staircase. And a regular "Church" night includes a stage show with a group of female dancers (chosen for something other than their dancing abilities). The first time we see them, they're nude but for well-placed tattoo-like paint swirls. At different points in the movie they dance suggestively in everything from feathers to sequins, showing bare buttocks and cleavage.
Oddly enough, the dancers in the speakeasy audience are actually better dancers than the girls onstage. They're shown dancing very sensual jazzy dances of the period with slow-motion sequences showing acrobatic tosses and high-flying skirts.
Women wear skimpy underwear and slinky low-cut dresses while serving drinks or lounging around the speakeasy. As if to reinforce their status as objects, they're slapped, groped and ogled.
Ace and Spats are both shot in cold blood by Trumpy, who hopes to take over their businesses. After shooting both men, he stands over a still-breathing Ace who is bleeding profusely. He nonchalantly chats with him for a few moments and then shoots him again point-blank.
Rooster's story is a violent one. At various times he is either wielding a gun or being shot at, leaving someone dead and the walls splattered with blood. For example, near the end of the film, Rooster discovers Trumpy and several men who have killed one of his friends and are severely beating and bloodying another one in an adjoining room. In a wall-smashing, guns-blazing fight (in which at least two more men die) Rooster is shot and is only saved because the bullet strikes the Bible in his pocket.
To prove a point, Trumpy puts one bullet in his gun, spins the chamber, presses it to the temple of one of his boys and pulls the trigger Russian roulette style. [Spoiler Warning] Angel is accidentally killed during a gun battle. In his grief, Percival prepares her for a funeral (in an odd musical moment) and then attempts to hang himself. Rooster arrives in time to stop him.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used about 10 times in dialogue, but that number more than doubles if you include lyrics from at least three songs. The s-word and "d--n" make about 20 appearances each. God's name is profaned a dozen or so times, mostly in conjunction with "d--n." "Lord, Lord, Lord" and "Praise Jesus" are also used more as exclamation than praise. And the n-word, "b--ch," "a--" and crass mentions of the female anatomy are used on numerous occasions.
Zora always travels in the company of her four children. When she gets angry enough she tells the children, "Cover your ears" (which they all do in unison), before she cusses Rooster out.
Drug and Alcohol Content
This story centers on bootleggers and a speakeasy. So drinking hard alcohol (hooch) and smoking (cigarettes, cigars and pipes) takes place in all but a handful of scenes. Even the movie's stick figure men—who dance across Percival's sheet music—tip a bottle from time to time.
When Rooster is just a boy, he's given a flask with a rooster engraved on its front by his uncle Spats. The boy is encouraged to open it. He takes a sniff and says, "It's stinky," but he carries it with him and drinks from it frequently as an adult. (The rooster on the front also comes to life and encourages him to drink more.)
At the beginning of Idlewild, I thought, "This one has potential." It's a modern musical with the texture and style of the '30s. It's a story of two friends who break free from the things that bind them and find a sort of redemption. It features the very musically creative hip-hoppers André 3000 and Big Boi. It has a director with an obvious love for visual imagery that he demonstrates in such moments as the opening sequence—a montage of vintage photos, creatively brought to life, that perfectly sets the tone. So, with all these strengths, it's a pity that Idlewild ends up floundering on almost every level.
But it's not so difficult to understand in light of its glaring incongruities. We keep being tugged from the '30s to the present with rap's gangsta-style fur coats, the use of monikers such as "pimp," and ... rap music itself. The modern genre may find its roots in the jazz of this period, but the typical rap lyric OutKast is known for today seems completely alien to everything else going on. For example, Percival gets out of bed one morning with a song on his lips. In a creative twist, the cuckoo birds stick their heads out of the clocks lining his wall and sing along. Their words? "Ain't that much time now/I got to f--- you now."
And then there's the disappearing plot of this crime fable. Conflicts that could have been explored between Percival and his father or Rooster and his wife end up getting ignored in favor of a few more random animations or "shake your junk" scenes. Of all things, this was the biggest letdown, as the boozy, raw sexuality and bloody violence sucked away any possible heartfelt meaning. In fact, by the time the central characters reach their moment of "redemption," it feels like it doesn't fit somehow. Sort of like rap lyrics in a period piece.