Review: ‘Sylvie’s Love’: A Black romantic drama for the ages
Dancing to the ebb and flow of its seductive and period-specific soundtrack, “Sylvie’s Love,” from writer-director Eugene Ashe, a former recording artist, displays conventional, yet swoon-worthy steps. The classically conceived romantic saga, spanning several years in late 1950s and early 1960s Harlem, offers a comforting and velvety cinematic texture even if it is not extraordinary from a narrative standpoint.
Engaged, but not enamored of her fiancé, Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), the daughter of a record shop owner and an etiquette instructor, marvels daily at the wonders of television while also having encyclopedic music knowledge. One summer afternoon, her life changes course through a perfect collision between two constellations when saxophone player Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) walks in the store summoned by the “help wanted” sign of destiny.
Promptly, the pair is strolling through the metropolis basking in the joys of a clandestine affair that feels just right for the here and now. Long-term consequences haven’t yet perturbed their dreamlike revelry of slow dancing under street lamps and late-night stoop kisses. But soon melodrama, with its secrets and misconnections, strikes in tandem with the inevitable passage of time. In Sylvie’s eyes, Robert, a man of notable hubris, is on track to become the next John Coltrane, and she doesn’t want to prevent him from doing so.
With measured sultriness, Thompson spearheads the tune-heavy drama moving Sylvie from the youthful buoyancy of a torrid liaison to the resolute attitude of a woman with her own professional aspirations. Working behind the scenes in the entertainment business, she refuses, more than once, to put her career on hold for the love of a man who is unabashedly pursuing his. In an emotionally delicate performance suited for her calibrated range, the actress’ subtle but potent tonal shifts keep Sylvie poised even when enraged.
Boasting lavish craftsmanship with elegant beauty, Ashe’s second feature breathes the air of old Hollywood but in the service of a Black love story rarely seen with such grandeur. Phoenix Mellow‘s impeccable costume design puts Thompson in exquisite garments to stand out against manicured sets. All is captured with a luminously moody touch by cinematographer Declan Quinn as we go from nightclubs to concert halls and a television studio. Archival footage gloriously enhances the effect of walking through the streets of NYC of the past.
In turn, the director’s musical background makes itself evident throughout, not only in the collection of sing-along-inducing hits from the era that score the picture or the protagonists’ jobs, but in Sylvie’s reminiscence of the past based on the songs the memories call to mind.
That trait goes a long way to strengthen her personality since there’s a noticeable deficiency in the couple’s inner depth and their relationships with the peripheral players. Still, Ashe bets on the fantastic acting that enthralls with its palpable chemistry, a mix of the stoic and virile flirtatiousness Asomugha brings to his talented character and the hard-earned determination of Thompson’s Sylvie, who goes from housewife to television producer. Even Eva Longoria, in a small part, dazzles with a musical number of the Latin American romantic staple “Quizás, quizás, quizás.”
For all its aesthetic qualities, what’s most remarkable about “Sylvie’s Love” is that the conflicts in the lives of the Black people it depicts revolve almost exclusively around their personal desires, their pursuit of happiness, and their grappling with heartbreak. And though that might be a well-trodden road, the films most referenced as great examples of the form come from a white point of view.
It’s not that Ashe ignores the social justice struggles African Americans faced at the time, but rather that he presents these incidentally as part of a greater whole instead of making them the focal point. The humanistic tale of a man and a woman who are imperfect for each other but still wish to be together comes before any historical or political statement. That’s not only a valid artistic decision, but one that enriches the landscapes of Black storytelling today.
Sweeping and flawlessly produced, Ashe’s epic works as an inherently refreshing entry in the canon of a genre designed to make us sigh with knowing elation or tear up in misery thinking about our own bygone rendezvous.
Rated: PG-13, for some sexual content, and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Available Dec. 23 on Amazon Prime
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