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The short and unhappy career of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers is a rich saga. It’s a microcosm of cultural shifts in ’50s America, when rock ‘n’ roll introduced the exotic sounds of multiculti enclaves like the Bronx to a burgeoning nationwide audience of teenagers, and the music’s success threatened the gatekeepers of Jim Crow segregation. It’s also a cautionary tale of corruption and exploitation in the embryonic rock industry, which was ceded to gangsters by major-label snobs intent on continuing to deal exclusively in the likes of Mitch Miller, Perry Como, and Beethoven. And for director Gregory Nava, it’s another chapter in his history of the Latino experience north of the Rio Grande.

But let’s hear Why Do Fools Fall in Love producer Stephen Nemeth, head of Rhino Films, explain the movie’s essence: “Waiting to Exhale opened to very warm response, and we knew that a story seen through the eyes of the women who had loved Frankie would have legitimate appeal to an audience.”

Thus a knotty true story becomes a simple Hollywood formula. The key scenes in Why Do Fools Fall in Love don’t feature Frankie Lymon (Larenz Tate), the teen sensation who died after injecting heroin in 1968. They take place almost 20 years after his death, when three women sue notorious music-biz hustler Morris Levy (veteran director Paul Mazursky) for the rights to Lymon and the Teenagers’ biggest hit. (The song began to produce big royalties again after Diana Ross took it back into the Top 10 in 1981.) This movie is primarily the familiar story of three African-American women who find that female comradeship is more satisfying than the love of a handsome and charismatic but fickle and dishonest man.

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The women are Zola Taylor (Bulworth’s Halle Berry), a member of the Platters who first met Lymon when her group toured with the Teenagers; Elizabeth Waters (Soul Food’s Vivica A. Fox), an impoverished woman who met Lymon when he saved her from being busted for shoplifting; and Emira Eagle (Waiting to Exhale’s Lela Rochon), a naive Georgia schoolteacher who met Lymon after he had been drafted. These women are introduced in Levy’s office, where they are startled to discover that all three have reason to call themselves Mrs. Frankie Lymon. The singer apparently wed each of them, although the validity of the marriages is suspect; if Lymon was a “trigamist,” Taylor and Waters were reportedly bigamists.

Nava and scripter Tina Andrews are entirely willing to reduce this conflict to sitcom: Taylor, Waters, and Eagle introduce the film, offering divergent accounts of Lymon; when they meet, they exchange bristling glances and catty remarks. (Redd Foxx, who is depicted opening for Lymon in one scene, could have written the three wives’ bitchy dialogue.) Later, however, they bond, agreeing that Lymon was a great singer and a “good fuck.” (Each woman is allotted one rhapsodic love-making scene with the singer.) They vow to share the proceeds if any one of them wins the rights to Lymon’s song, although as on-screen commentator Little Richard warns their chances of collecting are slim.

Fortunately, the crowd-pleasing cliches of the courtroom-farce scenes are only part of Nava’s scheme. The director’s breakthrough film, El Norte, was a naturalistic tale of Guatemalan refugees trying to make a place for themselves in L.A., but Why Do Fools Fall in Love is more like Nava’s My Family/Mi Familia. That three-generation saga combined folklore, documentary, comedy, and melodrama, tearing some pieces of its narrative from news accounts while lifting an entire subplot from the main story of Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu.

Like My Family, Why Do Fools Fall in Love is lax with narrative and characterization but strong on sweeping myth. At times, the movie seems less history than pageant, with a playful energy resembling that of such arch, abstract biographies as Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. While aspects of Andrews’ script are formulaic, the film nonetheless has an engaging vigor it’s almost delirious with tracking shots, quick cuts, flashbacks, and freaked-out montage and a few whimsical surprises. One of the latter is Little Richard, playing himself and speaking his mind about how early rock ‘n’ rollers were swindled. Andrews probably didn’t write Richard’s characteristically raunchy description of how Levy treated Lymon: “Morris didn’t even use no Vaseline.”

The years tumble by impressionistically, in scenes alternately comic and horrific, propelled by the youthful vigor of the Teenagers’ doo-wop classics (which also include “Goody Goody,” “ABCs of Love,” and “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”) as well as such tunes as Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” Its use of the last is the only time the film significantly fudges the chronology: Lymon sings along with it in 1965, but the song actually wasn’t a hit until six months after the singer died. (The use of real ’60s songs is one major advantage that Why Do Fools Fall in Love has over Allison Anders’ Grace of My Heart, which attempted to conjure the same period and milieu with lousy fake songs.)

That Lymon be black and proud is important to the movie’s marketing effort, but in fact the vocalist was not significant to any late-’60s shift in racial consciousness. Lymon was only 13 in 1955 when he recorded his signature tune which makes even baby-faced Tate much too old for the part and he was a defeated man by the time the ’60s dawned. As for the Teenagers’ sound, it was as rooted in Latino culture as anything: Lymon was a last-minute substitute for the group’s original lead singer, Herman Santiago, who was sick when the Teenagers auditioned.

One of the many possible footnotes to Nava and Andrews’ abridged version of the Frankie Lymon story is that Santiago and fellow Teenager Jimmy Merchant also sued for the rights to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” They were listed with Lymon as the songwriters on the original release of the song, but the credit was changed to Lymon-Levy when the record was reissued by Levy’s Roulette label. (Contrary to the movie’s version, the Teenagers were originally signed by pioneering jazz and rock A&R man George Goldner, not Levy.) Santiago and Merchant won a $570,000 judgment, but it was overturned by a federal appeals court that ruled the duo had waited too long to file suit.

Santiago and Merchant argued that they hadn’t sued earlier because Levy had threatened them. That sounds plausible. As recounted in Fredric Dannen’s account of the record industry, Hit Men, Levy had many ties to organized crime. In 1988, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion; he was still appealing the case when he died in 1990. Why Do Fools Fall in Love is not a hymn to Morris Levy, but ultimately the film is no tougher on his reputation than the American legal system was on his bank accounts. If you want to know the movie’s real moral, wait for the concluding song list and read the songwriting credits for “ABCs of Love,” “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Every one of them still includes the name Morris Levy.CP