Percival, a mortician by day/speakeasy piano player by night, sleeps under an assortment of singing cuckoo clocks and serenades a lovely corpse dressed as a bride. The engraved rooster on a silver liquor flask talks to its owner, also named Rooster. This stylized and stylish love and bullets prohibition-era story from Outkast is more of an extended music video than a movie, but it is eye- and ear-filling entertainment.
Andre (Andre 3000) Benjamin is Percival and Antwan A. (Big Boi) Patton is Rooster. The boisterously rowdy speakeasy is run by Sunshine Ace (Faison Love), a man of great appetites who is only too happy to feed them all at the illegal club called Church hidden behind his car repair shop. He gets his illegal liquor from Spats (Ving Rhames). Rooster performs at the club and helps manage it as well, causing his wife and the mother of his five daughters some distress. Like Ace, Rooster enjoys partaking of the pleasures of this Church, sometimes the very same one, in the person of the lovely Rose (Paula Jai Parker).
Spats wants to retire, and offers Ace the opportunity to buy him out for $25,000. Ace has a plan to get the money – he has arranged for the renowned singer Angela Davenport to perform. But Spats’ henchman, Trumpy (Terrence Howard) has plans of his own, and they involve his gun.
At times, it feels like the story is less an idea than a list made by Benjamin, Patton, and first time director/screenwriter Bryan Barber (director of Outkast’s most memorable videos) of what and who would be fun to shoot – either by film or by (pretend) gun.
As one might expect, the musical numbers are brilliantly handled, with music video-style sweeps and cuts that make the camera as much a part of the choreography as the dancers. Barber’s approach is to evoke rather than reproduce the 1920’s, with many modern touches in the look, script, and especially the sound, which has only the slightest connection to the music of the era. The evident affection for this romanticized vision of the era saturates the film like the warm sepia tones of its palette. There is something liberating about seeing a beautiful, elegant black woman buy a first class train ticket from a white man behind the ticket counter (the only white person in the film) in 1935 Georgia, without any concern that he might display any bigotry.
Barber achieves a dreamy synthesis that works very well, but has less of a sure hand at creating characters and directing actors. Even the experienced and superbly talented Howard, Cecily Tyson, Ben Vereen, and Rhames are not able to make their one-dimensional characters compete with the film’s visual flair. But that flair, with the dizzying mash-up of old and new, the embracing of some cliches and the turning inside out of others, makes this film entertaingnly audacious and highly watchable.
Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, explicit sexual references and situations, nudity, and a great deal of mobster-style violence. Much of the action takes place in a nightclub specializing in illegal alcohol and prostitution. Characters are shot and killed. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of confident, independent black characters in an era in which that would have been very difficult.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Percival to do what he wanted and why it was too easy for Rooster to do what he wanted. They might like to find out more about the history of that era.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and O Brother Where Art Thou.