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Review: 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' makes for dull song and dance

Web posted on: Monday, September 21, 1998 1:44:30 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Before I tell you what I thought about the Frankie Lymon biography, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," I'm about to do something that I normally avoid in my reviews. I'd like to discuss some conclusions I once came to while writing a biographical screenplay. I hope that I can properly convey what I'm getting at without sounding like a crackpot, but I'm not making any promises here. Vaguely abstract thought can seem a little ridiculous when bluntly typed onto an unforgiving page, so bear with me.

The cardinal rule is this: Real life does not play by the rules of movie storytelling. We don't fall into step with a three-act structure during our trip from the womb to the grave; our tumbling everyday experiences seldom coalesce into obviously momentous "turning points."

Clip: "Let me get this"

Video clip: 1.2Mb QuickTime

Clip: "Frankie is my husband"

Video clip: 1.6Mb QuickTime

Clip: "The architect of rock and roll"

Video clip: 1.7Mb QuickTime

Thus, if you're planning to write a script about an actual person's life, the idea that the end result will be based on that life is an absolute given. Otherwise, you'll have ideas and anecdotes repeatedly jumping out of the dark and yelling "boo," but the cumulative effect after two hours will be less than enlightening. It'll also be far less than graceful.

I've always said that a writer in this situation needs to determine what the story's "Christmas tree" is. That is, what's the thematic point that you're trying to communicate by examining the subject's experiences? Once you determine what your themes are, you can then hang all kinds of lights and fancy ornaments on the tree by writing seemingly anecdotal scenes. Just don't lose sight of the fact that there's a tree under there.

"Schindler's List" is hardly about the mechanics of keeping innocent people out of concentration camps. It's about the emotional journey that one man took while trying to do so. That's where the power lies. That's why we go to the movies. The subject of the script needs to be somewhat at the mercy of the broader, unspoken forces that control the world he or she is living in, and the battle with these forces should be portrayed in a way that makes the audience care about what happens the protagonist.

Clunky story hangs on courtroom scenes and flashbacks

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is a misfire in several ways, but the key problem is that the writers have a clunky, concrete Christmas tree, not something thematic that can be used to devise scenes of various shades and colors. The central storytelling device is a courtroom battle between three women who are claiming to be Lymon's legal widow, all of whom want to get their hands on the royalties from his one truly popular song (see the title).

Lymon's story is told in flashbacks and courtroom testimony, and the end result feels as free-floating as a special episode of "Laverne and Shirley" where everybody sits around reminiscing about the time Carmine shoved Squiggy down the trash chute. Very little is implied, everything is spelled out in block letters, and the only real reason behind telling the story is evidently to see who's gonna get all those royalties. And I simply didn't care.

Lymon's three "wives" are a former singer with the Platters (Halle Berry, pretty good and gorgeous as usual); a sweet-pea schoolmarm (Lela Rochon, completely serviceable); and a scuzzy small-time crook (Vivica A. Fox, trying way too hard for a story that ended up so cartoony).

Aside from the inelegant courtroom device, that cartoonish-ness is the movie's biggest downfall. The period is over-pronounced in a TV movie sort of way, with everyone dressed to the nines 24 hours a day (in admittedly super-cool clothes), with the pompadours being precisely pomped for maximum impact. Plus, the '50s and '60s decor looks like an exhibit of industrial design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; nobody ever has a plain old chair or kitchen table when they have enough money for a colorful blob of plastic and fake fur.

The jumps in and out of Lymon's life are precipitated by which woman is currently telling which part of her story up on the stand, so there's no way to grow alarmed by the central figure's quick descent into drug addiction after his meteoric rise to the top of the pop charts. It's sort of like the rise and fall and rise and rebuilding period and fall and rise of Frankie Lymon. Larenz Tate plays Lymon, and he sparkles like a diamond in those tailored suits, but there's one very big problem -- he looks to be about 20 years old, while Lymon was barely 13 when "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" took off.

Too-big live performances still outshine movie

I really couldn't believe it when Tate first stepped out and started singing. Gary Coleman in a pair of platform shoes would've been a far more accurate depiction of the actual person. There's also too much of an emphasis on Lymon's supposedly hot-doggish performing style. Based on videos that I've seen of him getting down (and the records I've heard -- I'm a big doo-wop fan), guys like Jackie Wilson and James Brown could have eaten Lymon up and spit him out on the stage.

Accurate or not, though, the live performances are the best part of the whole movie. There's a spirit of abandonment to them that jump-starts the story several times, but it eventually stalls when you have to sit down in the courtroom again and watch the women go bug-eyed as they disagree with what they consider to be inaccurate testimony. Little Richard doesn't help matters, either, showing up to play himself in the courtroom.

Richard is one of the major giants of rock 'n' roll, but if he keeps up his shtick for another ten years, he may end up being the first person in show business to become a parody of a parody of a parody of a parody. Any man who could convincingly sing the lines, "It ain't what you do, it's the way how you do it/It ain't what you eat, it's the way how you chew it," should be allowed to sit back and rest on his laurels. As Richard himself is inclined to say, "Shut up!"

This is all rather lame, and doesn't tell us a single thing about the forces that drove Lymon to an untimely death. Rhino Records is a truly fantastic re-issue record label, and their big-screen off-shoot, Rhino Films, is responsible for the movie. The guys at Rhino spend a great deal of time getting the rights to the seminal tracks they re-release, so it would make sense that this "who gets the royalties" stuff would interest them. It just isn't the kind of thing that breathes life into a story. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" isn't awful (and those concert scenes are great) but Lymon deserves at least a little bit better.

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" contains bad language, track marks, and a woman driven to prostitution. Rent the video, or, much better yet, buy the record. Rated R. 125 minutes.

Warner Bros., a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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