Remember when La La Land and Moonlight went head to head at the 2018 Oscars, dividing a nation? Sylvie’s Love is like not having to choose.
For people who had reservations about La La Land — for whitesplaining jazz, or for being a disguised white savior narrative (as noted by cultural critics like David Dennis and Ira Madison) Sylvie’s Love, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, offers the promise of being able to love a jazz-infused love story without such reservations. I loved La La Land as it was — directed by former youth jazz drummer Damian Chazelle — for its snarky but earnest take on LA life, and for what (I thought) was a clearly critical portrayal of its own protagonist’s pedantic take on jazz. Sylvie’s Love is like La La Land without the ironic detachment.
Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, a former Sony Music artist from Harlem, Sylvie avoids La La Land’s most polarizing elements, simply by virtue of being set in mid-century Harlem and starring a mostly black cast. Which isn’t to say that it’s a less challenging story. In fact, despite the romantic love story at its center, Ashe’s film eschews the schmaltzy and the saccharine at nearly every turn. Like La La Land (for those of us who fell for it), Sylvie’s Love is heartbreaking and heart melting in almost equal measure, a film about professional disappointment and the importance of timing as much as it’s about love. I haven’t been so emotionally wrecked sitting alone at a festival movie since Brooklyn. Sylvie’s Love is damn near perfect.
Tessa Thompson plays the titular Sylvie, binging on television while working the register at her family’s record store. She has a loving father (The Wire’s Lance Reddick, cast way against type here and doing an insanely charming hepcat riff on John Amos’s character in Good Times), a best friend, a strict mother (she’s the author of books on etiquette) and a rich fiancée off fighting in Korea (Lacy, played by Alano Miller). One day a handsome, charming fella named Robert comes in looking for a job and bonds with Sylvie’s dad over the saxophone. When Sylvie’s dad hires him on the spot, all the love story ingredients are mixed and ready to bake.
Sylvie’s Love would be a dull watch if it was just about love, but the movie, like life, isn’t quite that simple. Robert is a professional jazz saxophonist who’ll have to weather the popular shift from jazz to Motown, soul, and rock n roll; Sylvie an aspiring television producer who’ll have to balance her career aspirations with a world that expects women to play second fiddle. Jemima Kirke (Girls) gets a memorable turn as the manager of Robert’s band, and Eva Longoria shows up periodically as Robert’s landlord for reasons harder to divine (I initially assumed she was a producer but she’s not credited as such). Robert, meanwhile, is played by Nnamdi Asomugha, a name that sounded familiar. Hey, isn’t that the same name as that football player? In fact it’s the same guy, and it’s a credit to Asomugha’s acting that I had no idea before I googled it after the movie. It’s a rare wonder to find out that an ex-athlete is both an actor and a great actor at the same time.
Thompson is typically wonderful, and the two have incredible chemistry together, assisted by cinematography (by Declan Quinn) that makes them practically glow. In a lot of ways, Sylvie’s Love is a star-driven throwback to Hollywood’s golden age. With its glowing characters, gorgeous mid-century styling, and Sam Cooke-heavy soundtrack, it’s hard not to be reminded of 2018’s equally enchanting If Beale Street Could Talk. Not quite a musical, Sylvie is nonetheless suffused with music, from Mingus and Monk to Coltrane, and as you might imagine from a former professional musician like Ashe, the musical choices are beyond reproach. Sam Cooke ballads set to a love story between two people dressed like my grandparents in their prime? I want to cook this movie with a spoon and shoot it in my arm like Miles Davis.
A great love story makes you think of the people you love in your own life. I’ll save you the gushy personal details on that, but suffice it to say it’s a movie that inspires one to gush; the kind of a film to make a cynic want to wax romantic. If Sylvie’s Love isn’t in the Oscar conversation a year from now, Hollywood is canceled.