WWhen I first saw Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, I remembered less about leaving the theater and more about floating. “This,” I said to everyone who was listening, “is sure to be a smash and end up awash in Oscar nominations.”
Well, I was right to a certain extent about the first part – critics have praised the film – but the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled its theatrical release, and its debut on Amazon Prime at the end of the year hasn’t caught on as mainstream connected as it should have been.
But one good thing about movies that are owned (and not just licensed) by the big streamers is that they never go away. To that end, if you subscribe to Amazon, you’ve done more than just subscribe to Jeff Bezos’ New to Space. You have secured access to one of the most beautiful films of the last five years.
Sylvie’s Love is for people who watch older movies and sigh, “they don’t make them like that anymore”. Its classic nature is woven into its look as is, shot in Super 16mm film format, and has backlot sets that are clearly not New York City, but not in a hyper-stylized or campy way. Frankly, it looks like what movies looked like when this story was set, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
There is, of course, one major differentiator: the main actors are black. Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha star as the cosmically misaligned lovers encounter unfair obstacles that separate them from the happiness they deserve. Even though this is a historical piece, the struggle to survive in a racist country during the civil rights era is just part of the noise in these characters’ lives, not the focus. As Ashe put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “All I have to do is open my family photo albums to see a whole different take on black life in the ’60s.” which tragically would never have gotten the funding back then, so it needs to be shot now.
When we first meet Sylvie von Thompson, she works at a Harlem record store owned by her father (Lance Reddick, who really lights up the room in every scene he’s in). One day Robert, a young saxophonist, goes for a walk in search of Thelonious Monk’s album Brilliant Corners. (He’s heard it say “Newk” — a nickname for Sonny Rollins.) Soon he’s working at the store, and in classic sitcom fashion, the two meet while locked in the basement after hours. This may sound cheesy, but it’s driven by the script. As much as Robert is destined for greatness with his music, Sylvie has her own dream of becoming a television producer.
Thompson and Asomugha’s romantic twinkle would make you swoon, and as their summer love grows more passionate (mirrored by supporting cast Aja Naomi Kim and Regé-Jean Page), the film makes heavy use of chaste dissolves. It’s not that I’m a cinematic prudish person, it’s just that some films require a little finesse. This is nothing but first class production.
Running for about 45 minutes, Sylvie’s Love is a warm, blissful bath of gorgeous costumes, heartbreaking looks and tons of great music. There’s an original little jazz combo written by Fabrice Lecomte and performed by Mark Turner, as well as hits of the era from the likes of Nancy Wilson, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Jackie Wilson. Even a cheesy early rock ‘n’ roll track by Bill Haley and His Comets (See You Later, Alligator) is, reluctantly at first, a scathing catchy tune. (His goofy lyrics eventually become poignant, and if that’s not a testament to the magic of this film, I don’t know what is.)
But then complications arose, with misunderstandings and bad timing being the root cause of everything. We spend the rest of the film’s running time wondering when the hell fate is going to give our two lovers a break and let them live happily ever after.
One of the many things I love about this film (and I know I mentioned the costumes, but oh boy, the costumes) is how faithful the film’s style stays. It could easily have led to smashing, over-the-top performances, but Thompson and Asomugha are striving to keep their cool. He’s a sensitive guy who much prefers to express himself with his instrument than with words (I was surprised to learn he had a previous career as an American football player) and she just shines in every scene. It doesn’t take much to support these people.
Though set in the world of classic jazz and early television, Ashe wastes no time in thinly veiled references to real-life characters. There’s just one exception, a bit like a gift to Jazzboss, with Jemima Kirke’s protective character “The Countess” – a sly nod to Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter.
The goal of becoming an instant classic is achieved, and with no shortcuts. You will love it.