Behind the Music

As medieval Christians had the lives of the saints, so we have the showbiz biopic. What was it the poet wrote? Hold infinit-E! in the palm of your hand, and A&E-ternity in an hour?

There's a lot, actually, that can be said about dead celeb of the week Frankie Lymon (1942­1968). This street-smart Harlem kid was America's first black teen idol--a precocious dynamo who, looking even younger than he was, fronted a group of neighborhood guys called the Teenagers and whose soaring boy-soprano powered one of the biggest r&b hits of 1956, the song that gives its title to the movie Why Do Fools Fall in Love, directed by Gregory Nava from Tina Andrews's script.

Over their 18 months of fame, Lymon and the Teenagers had four more hit singles, including the droll "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent." The group appeared on TV, toured the world, had their faces immortalized on bubble-gum cards, starred with DJ impresario Alan Freed in a couple of rocksploitation quickies, inspired a satellite ensemble featuring Frankie's younger brother Louie, influenced a whole generation of girl groups, and made money for everyone but themselves. Frankie went solo, managed one more hit, and got strung-out--a junkie has-been well before 20. A 1964 comeback was aborted by a drug conviction; less than four years (and several busts) later, he OD'd in the bathroom of his grandmother's West 165th Street apartment.

Details

Why Do Fools Fall in Love
Directed by Gregory Nava
Written by Tina Andrews
A Warner Bros. release

54
Written and directed by Mark Christopher
A Miramax release

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But this being America, the story has a capper. When Diana Ross's cover version put "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" back on the charts in 1981, three self-proclaimed Lymon widows--including the former Platters singer Zola Taylor--sued for rights to the late Teenager's nonexistent estate. Success, failure, greed, betrayal, a frantic showbiz milieu crammed with colorful hustlers: the movies haven't been offered celebrity material this rich since Melvin and Howard. Indeed, taking the lawsuit as her narrative basis, Andrews had the makings of a Brill Building Great McGinty, even a doo-wop Citizen Kane--if only there had been an Orson Welles or Preston Sturges to direct it.

Although Why Do Fools Fall in Love is problematic from the moment the too-old, too-tall, terminally bland Larenz Tate is gumped into Lymon's scenes from Rock Rock Rock,neither Andrews nor Nava, whose previous contribution to pop star martyrology was the 1997 Selena, are without ideas. The issue of appropriation is scarcely hidden. At one point in the proceedings, all three lawyers gang up on the sleazy record mogul Morris Levy (Paul Mazursky), a conflation of the actual Levy and the somewhat less villainous producer George Goldner, while, in a respite from courtroom catfights, Little Richard, resplendently playing himself in an orange lamé ensemble, is called to testify on the exploitation of naive rock pioneers.

There are moments when it seems as though this candy-colored potboiler might deliver a smooth, posh kick. The glamorous Zola (Halle Berry) and her rivals--spunky shoplifter Elizabeth Waters (Vivica A. Fox) and prim schoolteacher Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon)--give alternately complementary and contradictory testimony on Frankie's passion. Frankie trashes apartments, pitches woo, collapses onstage, drops a dog out a window. But the courtroom structure creates a repetitive, ultimately dull chronology punctuated by grainy inserts of realness and repeated recesses called by Pamela Reed's bemused judge.

Lacking a coherent tone, Why Do Fools Fall in Love bops erratically from broad comedy to romantic bathos. The production design is no less uneven. A clever Harlem street set segues to a ridiculous evocation of '60s L.A. An amusing riff on the TV show Hullabaloo--in which, following the Kinks and surrounded by frantic fruggers, the rejuvenated Frankie brings down the house--is followed by a less intentionally recherché interlude of candlelit love. Imitating Diana Ross or rehearsing, perhaps, for her upcoming Dorothy Dandridge biopic, Berry plays young Zola as a glazed construction in crinoline and pearls while Fox has twitchy fun inhabiting a character whose entire personality shifts from scene to scene, with Rochon's Emira as their simpering foil.

"That flat-footed little weirdo played all of us," Fox declares at one point. Would that it were so. The spaniel-eyed Tate has the energy to prance and lip-synch his way through the Lymon songbook. He's light on his feet, but his dramatic scenes are even lighter than that--his Frankie is basically the baby-faced McGuffin for the movie's high-heeled histrionics. (There are times when the spirit of Little Richard infuses everything and Why Do Fools becomes a veritable Wigstock.) The softcore sex scenes and fierce female bonding suggest a failed lunge toward Terry McMillan country; given the frantic lindy-hopping, the movie has barely enough swing for a single Gap commercial.

As chintzy as Why Do Fools Fall in Love ultimately is, the filmmakers wisely allow survivor Little Richard the last word and then inadvertently reduce the preceding two hours to mere prologue by flashing documentary footage of the actual 14-year-old Lymon at the peak of his career. Saint Frankie's exuberantly telegraphed "innocence," transparently feigned and poignantly real, serves to reproach everything that has come before--the movie, the audience, show business, and 20th-century America.

Ona less exalted level, the actual flash-photos of totally hammered celebs that grace the end-credits of Mark Christopher's 54 are by far the liveliest thing in this choppy, depressingly pointless celebration of Manhattan's greatest disco.

Studio 54 is introduced, in a dopey voiceover given to busboy Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe), as owner Steve Rubell's dream of democratic decadence--a nonstop party with no rules, once you were allowed past the velvet rope. Christopher's 54 is a vision of showbiz beatitude with hardly any beat and very little to show. Too bad Christopher didn't put Rubell himself at the center--particularly since, in an underwritten or severely scissored role, the Brooklyn mogul is played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Mike Meyers as the snickering, 'luded Nero of New York City nightlife.

As released, however, 54 seems a pale imitation of Boogie Nights, focusing on the education of the dumb but winsome Shane, who flees Jersey City to become a bare-chested bartender serving (and servicing) the gods at their revels--"one big bender with business cards," in the conventional wisdom of the pretty soap star (Neve Campbell), also from Jersey, whom Shane covets. Rumor has it that the movie has achieved its relatively svelte 89-minute running time by eliminating Shane's opportunistic homosexual trysts. And that's not the only thing missing.

Anyone who sat through The Last Days of Disco might find themselves searching the balcony for the well-bred Stillmanettes who populated last spring's vision of the Great Good Place. Last Days wasn't much of a movie, but it did create the occasion for a splendid CD. 54 can't even say that.

Leave town for a week and you never know what may happen. I can't say I mind seeing my name in movie ads but I was surprised to read myself credited with calling Your Friends&Neighbors "a fascinating erotic comedy." What I actually wrote was that Your Friends & Neighbors was "a fascinatingly mean-spirited erotic comedy," which is not only a less infelicitous use of the language but a better pull quote.

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