Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1 star out of 4
Traditionally, the last few weeks of summer trigger the release of an
avalanche of weak films from the major studios, as the powers that be
desperately try to squeeze whatever money they can from moviegoers still
hungry for air-conditioned diversion. While most of these leftovers lack
ideas or a distinctive point of view, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" suffers
from the opposite problem. Presenting the biography of singer Frankie
Lymon, writer Tina Andrews and director Gregory Nava juggle too many
ideas and points of view, resulting in a film that, while sporadically
entertaining, mostly serves as a frustrating example of disjointed
storytelling and missed opportunities.
The film prominently features a court battle between three women over the
estate of Lymon, their late husband. Beneath that elaborate framing
device lies your basic rags-to-riches-to-disaster pop music tale. Frankie
Lymon and the Teenagers hit the big-time in the late '50s with the film's
title song, a catchy doo-wop number which remains a staple of oldies
stations. Lymon became a star and went solo, falling into a life of
womanizing and drugs, leading towards the inevitable downfall.
We've seen variations of this story before (in "The Buddy Holly Story,"
"La Bamba" and "The Doors," to name just a few), but Lymon's situation
contains relatively fresh thematic potential. The phenomenon of rock and
roll was manufactured by white businessmen by stealing rhythm and blues
from the people who created it. For years, they made stars of white
singers covering songs originally written and performed by black artists.
When black performers were finally allowed to take their place in the
mainstream spotlight, it was only under the rigid control of white
Lymon was one of many artists marginalized due to race. Having achieved
fame against the odds, he then found his star fading as the '60s British
Invasion hit, making all other forms of music passť. Once again, young
white kids ruled the charts with sounds derived from black musicians.
"Why Do Fools Fall In Love" becomes quite interesting when examining this
theme. Indeed, one of the film's most poignant scenes comes on the stage
of the pop music show "Hullabaloo," as Lymon stands in the wings, staring
in astonishment as The Kinks perform before a screaming crowd, while he
waits to appear as an "oldies" act.
Lymon's attempts to maintain a career in an entertainment world where
race and rapidly changing musical tastes work against him makes
compelling viewing, but the production only devotes a few minutes to that.
Director Nava is so busy navigating through the film's convoluted
structure that he fails to deal with the issues raised by the story. The
women's court battle should have been a mere framing device, but instead
it takes over the film. In the height of irony, Frankie Lymon becomes a
marginal figure in his own biography.
Over the course of its 117 minutes, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" tries to
be several different movies. It's a man-bashing, female bonding flick as
the three ex-wives discuss Lymon's flaws. It's a glossy bio-pic using
spinning newspapers to flash headlines as it shows Lymon's meteoric climb
to stardom in a dreamy retro-world. It's a melodramatic soap opera,
showing the singer's abusive behavior as drugs swallow his being. It's a
sassy courtroom comedy, with judge Pamela Reed allowing ex-wives Halle
Berry, Vivica A. Fox and Lela Rochon to act more like guests on "The
Jerry Springer Show" than plaintiffs in a court case.
Mostly, it's a superficial mish-mash of styles and tones that frequently
entertains, but never fully satisfies. The songs are good and Larenz Tate
gives an energetic performance as Lymon. There are a number of effective
scenes, and it's a treat watching Little Richard play himself on the
witness stand in a memorable cameo, testifying in both the legal and
evangelical sense of the word. What a shame that age prevented him from
playing himself throughout the film, because the actor portraying Little
Richard as a young man is terrible (an actor imitating Redd Foxx and
stand-ins for The Kinks are even less convincing).
Structural problems and bad impressionists aside, the fatal flaw is in
the framing story itself. By focusing on the ex-wives instead of Lymon,
viewers are asked to become emotionally involved with three characters
squabbling over a dead man's money. As the film progresses and the women
turn increasingly mercenary, sympathizing with their plight becomes
extremely difficult. It's like being led outside to see a horse, then
being presented with its carcass and urged to cheer for the vultures
At the end of the film, a picture of the real Frankie Lymon appears
onscreen and I was struck by two things. First, he looked much younger
than the actor who played him and second, after watching a film
purportedly devoted to his memory, Frankie Lymon remained a stranger,
just another rock and roll casualty, even in his own movie.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott