Clever Frankie Lymon bio told by bickering wives battling over royalties
A rock 'n' roll rise and fall! Screaming fans! Sex! Drugs! 1950s and '60s fashions! Catty women! Great music! If ever there was a biopic waiting to happen, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is it.
Any hack screenwriter with a stack of old 45s could have written a movie about Frankie Lymon, the baby faced front man for The Teenagers who made famous such everlasting ditties as "Baby Baby," "Goody Goody," and the song that serves as the picture's title.
Any mediocre director could have made a movie about Frankie Lymon and at worst it might have turned out like "Great Balls of Fire," the overindulgent Jerry Lee Lewis biography with Dennis Quaid released in 1989.
But Lymon got lucky -- posthumously, of course -- when rookie scripter Tina Andrews sold her "Fools" screenplay to Rhino Films (the company's record division owns half the good songs from the era, including Lymon's).
The resulting movie cleverly recounts closet polygamist Lymon's yo-yo-ing career from the courtroom recollections of his three wives, who duked it out in 1980s over the royalties from his songs.
He lucked out again when director Gregory Nava signed on. It's due to him that "Fools" is the more energetic than "That Thing You Do!" and more creative than his own "Selena" and a dozen other pop star pictures.
He lucked out again in casting. Larenz Tate ("lovejones," "Menace II Society") couldn't be more exciting on stage or more sympathetic broke and lost in a drug-addicted fog.
But the key to the success of this movie has little to do with Lymon. It's the ornery cattiness between his three wives that drives the action and makes it so much fun to watch.
Yes, Lymon married three different women. No, he never divorced any of them. And when Diana Ross remade "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in 1981, those wives saw dollar signs, starting with the unabashedly vulgar, street-wise first wife, played with head-rolling, scene-stealing sass by Vivica A. Fox ("Soul Food," "Independence Day").
Not to be upstaged, Halle Berry and Lela Rochon ("Waiting to Exhale"), as the ex-Platters singer, socialite wife and the prim schoolmarm wife, both turn in sugar-and-salt performances almost as good as Fox's.
Aged to perfection for the 1980s framing scenes, each wife tells the court a part of Frankie Lymon's story, tweaked slightly to her advantage.
In the early going there is a lot of confusion about names and dates, but the timeline shakes itself out (although many retrospectively important details do not) over the course of the movie, which is at its best in the past.
Nava employs all kids of inventive camera work in some of the most spirited concert scenes I've ever seen on film, the first of which is an extended tracking shot that starts outside a theater box office, passes through an audience of screaming teenage girls up onto a stage and circles Tate (lip-synching to the original recordings of Lymon's voice) for an entire song. This scene has so much juice that in 20 seconds most of the people at the preview screening were joyously bouncing along in their seats. (The rest of the soundtrack is just as good.)
What's more, Tate has a vivacious stage presence and he does a great job playing the progression from simple singer to performer to star -- and all the baggage that goes with it, including Lymon's acute inability to cope with his downfall, leading to the drug addiction that eventually killed him. (Note to Academy members -- don't forget Tate and Fox at nomination time).
While "Fools" is far from perfect thanks to the inevitable confusion three partially fabricated stories carry with them and some unnecessary excess (Little Richard, playing himself, is totally off his leash showboating in the courtroom scenes), this was a great movie waiting to happen. It's nice to see Hollywood didn't screw it up.