"Why Do Fools Fall in Love," the extraordinary story of 1950s teen idol Frankie Lymon, fairly bursts onto the screen in a kaleidoscope of color, movement, music and tour de force performances.
A trip down a musical memory lane set against the backdrop of the brief life of a gifted and tragic young man, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" moves at a lickety-split pace, combining social history, old-fashioned yarn-spinning and some cathartic female bonding into a compelling tale of love and self-deception. The only thing missing is a fully-drawn central character, but perhaps that's only fitting for Lymon, who may have been the greatest pretender of all time.
Lymon, who is portrayed in the movie by Larenz Tate, became a sensation at the age of 13 when his song with the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," became a pop hit. With his catchy falsetto, herky-jerky dance moves and spontaneous splits, Lymon drove audiences crazy, a hysteria that director Gregory Nava captures in a series of swooping, infectiously thrilling shots of the singer in concert.
But even though Lymon is the putative center of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," the real story is his love life, a complicated skein of relationships that had him married to three women, serially and simultaneously. The first love of his life was Zola Taylor (Halle Berry), one of the first singers with the Platters, whom he met while on tour. The second was a welfare mother and petty thief, Elizabeth Waters (Vivica A. Fox), and the third was Georgia schoolteacher Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon), whom he met when he had retired from singing and had joined the Army. (One of the film's subtle jokes is when Frankie is nabbed for being AWOL for four months; little did his captors know their quarry had been AWOL for most of his life.)
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" begins in 1985 when the three women came forward to demand their cut of the estate of Lymon, who died of a heroin overdose in 1968 at the age of 25. Within the framework of a court hearing, the film starts in 1981, when Diana Ross recorded "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" and the three wives began to battle for Lymon's royalties. Nava weaves effortlessly between contemporary scenes and flashbacks, using every movie technique at his disposal -- including grainy film stocks, gliding camera moves, fast edits and creative staging -- to create a swiftly moving, always absorbing pop "Rashomon."
Was Frankie Lymon a street kid with a heart of gold, the victim of the unscrupulous head of his record label (well played by Paul Mazursky), a sociopathic manipulator who would kill a woman's dog to make a point, or a sweet family man who had a green thumb and was handy around the house?
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" never answers those questions. For all of Tate's talents -- he has Lymon's moves down cold, and his eyelashes alone are more expressive than many actors' entire bodies -- Lymon is never more than a cipher in the film. But his wives are wonderfully larger than life.
Berry's native glamour gets full play as the sophisticated Zola, and Rochon is sweetly mousy as the gentle-natured Emira. The real show-stealer here is Fox, who plays Elizabeth with street-hardened sass and vulnerability. A scene late in the film, in which she silently eyes Zola over lunch and a post-prandial cigarette, is one of the nerviest, most eloquent and heroic performances of the year. The three actresses, all of whom are stunning, deserve vanity points for allowing themselves to age 30 years in the film, which must have taken herculean effort on the part of its makeup crew.
Lymon's story was a sad one, but "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" has its share of ribald humor, mostly from Fox and Little Richard, who toured with Frankie and Zola and plays himself in the present-day courtroom scenes. (Miguel A. Nunez Jr. portrays Little Richard as a young man with uncanny verisimilitude.) And there are scores of catfights and a "First Wives Club"-esque sisterly solidarity to keep things interesting until the unexpected -- and, yes, bitter -- end.
As the chronicle of doo-wop and its demise, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is a whirlwind lesson in pop history ("The Beatles stomped on it, Motown kicked it out and Hendrix took it to another place," one observer quips). As a love story, it's a crazy quilt of half-truths and personal revisionism.
As the portrait of a man, it remains tantalizingly incomplete. Appropriately, Little Richard has the last word in "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." But the film's final and lasting image is of 13-year-old Frankie Lymon himself, singing with more soul and self-possession than one would think possible. Where that gift came from and how it was destroyed is a mystery for the ages.
'Why Do Fools Fall in Love'
Starring Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox, Lela Rochon
Directed by Gregory Nava
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated R (language and some sexuality)
Running time: 115 minutes
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 8/28/98