My streaming gem: why you should watch Sylvie’s Love | Tessa Thompson


When I first saw Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love at the Sundance film festival in January 2020, I remember not so much exiting the theater as floating. “That,” I said to anyone listening, “will surely be a smash, and end up swimming in Oscar nominations.”

Well, I was right to a degree on the first part – critics did praise the film – but the coronavirus pandemic nixed its theatrical release, and its end-of-year debut on Amazon Prime did not connect on a mainstream level as it should have.

But one good thing about movies that are owned (and not merely licensed) by the major streamers is that they never go away. To that end, if you subscribe to Amazon you’ve done more than just underwrite Jeff Bezos’s jaunts to space. You’ve secured yourself access to one of the loveliest films of the last five years.

Sylvie’s Love is made for people who watch older movies and sigh “they don’t make ‘em like that any more”. Its classic nature is woven into its very look, shot, as it is, on the Super 16mm film format, and on backlot sets that clearly aren’t New York City, but not in a hyper-stylized or campy way. Put bluntly, it looks the way films looked when this story is set, the late 1950s and early 1960s.

There is, of course, one major differentiator: the lead performers are Black. Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha star as the cosmically misaligned lovers hit with unfair obstacles separating them from the happiness they deserve. Even though this is a period piece, the struggle of living in a racist country during the civil rights era is only part of the din of these character’s lives, not the focus. As Ashe put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “all I have to do is open up my family photo albums to see a very different depiction of Black life in the 60s.” It’s a film that, tragically, would have never gotten the funding back then, so it has to be made now.

When we first meet Thompson’s Sylvie, she is working in a Harlem record shop owned by her father (Lance Reddick, who really lights up the room in every scene he’s in). One day in walks Robert, a young saxophonist, looking for the album Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk. (He’s heard that “Newk” – a nickname for Sonny Rollins – is on it.) Soon he’s working at the shop and, in classic sitcom fashion, the pair end up connecting while locked in the basement after hours. That may sound corny, 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 sparkle would make a stone swoon, and as their summer fling grows more passionate (mirrored by supporting players Aja Naomi Kim and Regé-Jean Page), the film makes great use of chaste dissolves. It’s not that I’m a cinematic prude, it’s just that some movies call for a little tact. This is nothing if not a classy production.

For 45 minutes or so, Sylvie’s Love is a warm, blissful bath of to-die-for costumes, heart-melting glances, and loads of great music. There’s original small combo jazz written by Fabrice Lecomte and performed by Mark Turner, plus hits of the era from people like Nancy Wilson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Jackie Wilson. Even a corny, early rock’n’roll track by Bill Haley and His Comets (See You Later, Alligator) is, begrudgingly at first, given its due for being a snappy, catchy tune. (Its silly lyrics eventually become poignant, and if that isn’t a testimony to the magic of this film, I don’t know what is.)

But then complications set in, with miscommunication and bad timing the cause of it all. The rest of the film’s running time is spent wondering just when the heck fate will cut our two lovers a break and let them have their happily ever after.

One of the many things I love about this movie (and I know I mentioned the costumes, but, oh man, the costumes) is how true to itself the film’s style remains. It could have easily devolved into hammy, over-the-top performances, but Thompson and Asomugha are committed to playing it cool. He’s a sensitive guy who’d much rather express himself with his instrument than his words (I was surprised to learn he had a previous career playing American football) and she’s simply luminous in every scene. It doesn’t take much for you to root for these people.

Though it is set in the worlds of classic jazz and early television, Ashe doesn’t waste time with any thinly veiled references to real life figures. There is only one exception, a bit of a gift to jazzbos, with Jemima Kirke’s patron character “the Countess” – a sly reference to Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter.

The aim to become an instant classic is achieved, and without any shortcuts. You’ll love it.

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