In the pecking order of tragic black musicians, Frankie Lymon can't hold a votive candle to, say, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday or Otis Redding. But now the late doo-wopper's got his own movie, too--or, rather, he's got his own space in a movie that, for better or worse, is really about the bamboozled but feisty women in his life.
It's called Why Do Fools Fall in Love, and it's named for Lymon's biggest hit. That he recorded the tune in 1955, at the tender age of thirteen, went generally downhill from there and died at 25 is a biographical problem the current dramatists (writer Tina Andrews, Selena director Gregory Nava) have failed to solve. In lieu of an interesting or productive adulthood, they've scuffled 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 second career in 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 Frankie's estate at a court hearing many 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 flashbacks call upon him to do); the three actresses aren't very convincing as women of nearly fifty (which the movie also requires), and their bickering over the cash isn't all that interesting to begin with. But the re-created concert sequences--flashbacks sprinkled through the movie and done in perfect lip-sync to the original recordings--are spectacular: some silky Platters doing "The Great Pretender," Tate-as-Lymon singing the title tune, "Goody Goody" and others; an apoplectic Little Richard belting out "Tutti Frutti," Martha and the Vandellas swaying in green chiffon gowns.
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Fools comes nowhere close, in dramatic force, to one of its obvious models, What's Love Got to Do With It, which told the harrowing tale of Ike and Tina Turner. And its best comic moments come with the appearance of the real Little Richard, irrepressible wonder that he is, in a cameo as a courtroom witness. If you're willing to forgive a lot of dramatic dead weight and an inflated running time of two hours and fifteen minutes and simply wait for the tunes, 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.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love.
Screenplay by Tina Andrews. Directed by Gregory Nava. With Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox and Lela Rochon.