On the continuum of tragic black musicians, Frankie Lymon can't hold a votive candle to, say, Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday. But now, like that pair, the late doo-wopper has his own movie -- or, rather, he has his own space in a movie that, for better or worse, is really about the bamboozled but feisty women in his life.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love is named for Lymon's biggest hit, which he sang as frontman for the group the Teenagers. He recorded the tune in 1955, at the tender age of thirteen, went generally downhill from there, and died at twenty-five; the dramatists (writer Tina Andrews, director Gregory Nava, who helmed last year's Selena) have failed to solve this biographical problem. In lieu of an interesting or productive adulthood, they've hastened to fill in Frankie's blanks with other people's lives. Not exactly what you want in a full-bodied biopic.
The hook here is that Lymon, a dedicated heroin junkie with a short attention span and apparently a bad memory, was married to three women without benefit of divorce. The first was Zola Taylor (Halle Berry), the female singer of the Platters; the second was Elizabeth "Mickey" Waters (Vivica A. Fox), a welfare mother with a penchant for shoplifting; the third was Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon), a prim Georgia schoolteacher who liked to bake. The film seeks, with varying success, to make each of them interesting. And it tells us that they were all interested in collecting royalties from Lymon's estate years after his death. Everyone wanted payback from their beloved but troublesome trigamist.
Larenz Tate, the handsome star of Menace II Society and love jones, is far too mature to play Frankie at thirteen and fourteen (which the film's flashbacks call on him to do), and the three actresses aren't very convincing as women of nearly 50 (which the movie also requires). And their bickering over the cash isn't all that compelling. But the re-created concert sequences, done in perfect lip-synch to the original recordings, are spectacular: some silky Platters doing "The Great Pretender"; Tate as Lymon singing the title tune, "Goody Goody," and others; and an apoplectic Little Richard imitator belting out "Tutti Frutti."
Fools comes nowhere close in dramatic force to one of its obvious models, What's Love Got to Do With It (1993), which told the harrowing tale of Ike and Tina Turner. And its best comic moments arrive with the real Little Richard, irrepressible wonder that he is, in a cameo as a courtroom witness. But the flashback concert pieces, sprinkled throughout the movie, are sheer musical splendor. If you're willing to simply wait for the tunes, and to forgive a lot of dramatic dead weight and an inflated running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, you'll have a pretty good time. Think of this as a string of terrific big-screen music videos interrupted here and there by lousy writing and miscast actors, and you might even imagine you've gotten your money's worth.
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Why Do Fools Fall in Love.
Directed by Gregory Nava. Written by Tina Andrews. Starring Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox, and Lela Rochon.