Most musicians make faux-autobiographical musicals (think Purple Rain or 8 Mile) when they’re ready to move from stardom to superstardom. For Donald Glover, a film may be a way to leave the stage — finally making good on promises to retire Childish Gambino, the musical persona that has competed for years with his acting/writing career. Hiro Murai’s Guava Island, shot in Cuba and casting Rihanna in a non-singing support role, manages to wrap salty-air good vibes around a parable of capitalism’s fatal impact on artistry; it’s the opposite of an origin story, but it smiles through its fatalism.
The film premiered Thursday night at Coachella and is now available on Amazon Prime (though available to stream for free until 6 p.m. Saturday).
Written by the actor’s brother Stephen Glover and billed as “a Childish Gambino film,” the 55-minute featurette casts Glover/Gambino as Deni, a star on a small, fictitious isle, where he plays feel-good songs on a daily radio show. Guava Island is a Caribbean paradise turned into a sweatshop: Everyone works for a single rich man, Red (Nonso Anozie), who has cornered the market in local silks. “Red sees you,” declare posters on the wall of a garment factory where Deni’s girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna) works alongside best friend Yara; and the boss does not believe in days off. (The filmmakers, who allowed supporting actors Brian Tyree Henry and LaKeith Stanfield to become the real stars of Atlanta, give the effervescent Letitia Wright nearly nothing to do as Yara.)
Deni has promised his fans an all-night concert this Saturday, and the island is abuzz. But on the day of the show he is kidnapped and taken to Red, who in a too-friendly tone insists that the show can’t happen, lest it make people too tired to go to work Sunday. (Deni is abducted, with a sack over his head, at the end of a musical sequence that playfully riffs on the shocking imagery of Murai’s “This Is America” video.) Though the thin script contains another potential drama or two, the movie’s sole pressing question becomes whether Deni will defy Red or call off the concert.
So instead of Purple Rain, the film plays more like the 1978 reggae film Rockers, preferring the loosest possible narrative to a myth-building melodrama. Where the shortform Childish Gambino videos Murai has made always insist on giving viewers more than they expect (like “Telegraph Ave,” where tropical romance transforms into a monster movie), this one strips down, providing little more than a gorgeously staged setting for well-integrated performances of “Summertime Magic,” “Feels Like Summer” and a few other tunes. Complaints about capitalism are there if you want them, but Glover and Murai don’t hammer on the message, beyond putting Deni on a stage where he urges listeners to “feel as free as you possibly can.”
If this turns out to be the way Glover gets free of Gambino, here’s hoping he and his brother and Murai have many more collaborations ahead of them.
Production company: New Regency Pictures
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Donald Glover, Rihanna, Letitia Wright, Nonso Anozie
Director: Hiro Murai
Screenwriter: Stephen Glover
Producers: Carmen Cuba, Donald Glover, Fam Udeorji
Executive producers: Ibra Ake, Stephen Glover, Hiro Murai
Director of photography: Christian Sprenger
Production designer: Lucio Seixas