When Frankie Lymon sang "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in 1955, it was the ideal convergence of singer and song. His soaring falsetto invests the tune (which he co-wrote) with a yearning that transforms it from a standard pop lament into a genuine, pleading inquiry.
It wasn't that original version, but a by-the-numbers cover by Diana Ross in 1981, that triggered the real-life court case at the center of Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Frankie Lymon, a pop star with the Teenagers when he was only 13, was dead at 26 from a drug overdose. He left behind a potentially lucrative estate and three wives, each one claiming to be the legitimate legal heir.
Screenwriter Tina Andrews and director Gregory Nava (Selena) use the court testimony of his wives and contemporaries (including Mr. Personality himself, Little Richard, who more than deserves his own biopic) to piece together a portrait of the short, messy life of Frankie Lymon (Larenz Tate), using flashbacks to detail his meteoric rise to, and long, slow descent from, fame.
There are actually three Frankie Lymons in Why Do Fools Fall In Love. Zola Taylor (Halle Berry), a singer with the Platters, met the dynamic Frankie when he was at the top of his game and whipping audiences into a joyous frenzy. Familiar with hard times, Elizabeth Waters (Vivica A. Fox) could see some of that charm beneath Frankie's post-success self-loathing, but mostly dealt with the bitter effects of his heroin addiction. But schoolteacher Emira Eagle (Lela Rochon) only saw a soldier who savored her small-town Southern ways and was anxious to settle down into a quiet life.
The film touches only briefly on issues that warrant further examination: the history of the Teenagers, a multiracial doo-wop group, and how lifelong friendships were shattered when Frankie went solo; his relationship to his family (Frankie's younger brother Louie formed his own group, the Teenchords); how early rock 'n' roll musicians were systematically cheated out of their publishing rights; or even Lymon's musical legacy (he's cited as an influence on the Motown sound, especially the Jackson 5).
A charismatic Larenz Tate embodies Lymon equally well as a euphoric performer, reckless romantic optimist and hollow-eyed junkie, but can't pull all the disparate Frankies together as anything more than a fascinating cipher. Andrews and Nava are more interested in completely fleshing out Zola, Elizabeth and Emira than the man each woman thought she knew so well.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love, in its own glossy, entertaining way, is a deeper examination of how an individual can use numerous masks to conceal himself, even from the ones he loves.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.