'Sylvie's Love': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A love not quite supreme, but pretty good.

Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha play star-crossed lovers passionate about jazz in late-'50s/early-'60s New York in Eugene Ashe's second feature.

Possibly the most wholesome film since the lifting of the Hays Code to feature a professional jazz musician as one of its protagonists, 1950s/early-60s-set romance Sylvie's Love is an unabashed throwback to the women's pictures of Hollywood's Golden Age. Starring Tessa Thompson as a smart record-store owner's daughter from the upper echelon of Harlem society and Nnamdi Asomugha as a talented tenor saxophonist, it's a film awash in scrupulously researched vintage production design, costumes and above all music, all rendered in a Technicolor palette that will send grandparents and fans of Golden Age cinema swooning with nostalgia.

The script by director Eugene Ashe (Homecoming), formerly a recording artist himself, is original, although clearly inspired by Douglas Sirk's melodramas and proto-feminist tales like Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) or The Best of Everything. In fact, if it had been revealed to be a remake of a lost studio B picture starring Dorothy McGuire or Mary Murphy, for example, it would be entirely believable.

The big difference is, of course, that the main characters and most of the cast of Sylvie's Love are black. But race is less of an issue here than it is in say, Sirk's Imitation of Life, although one supporting character does get involved in the civil rights movement and the heroine recognizes the barriers to her becoming a television producer. Obviously, not every film made about and by people of color has to deal with discrimination and racial conflict. But the friction-less portrait it paints of life in New York City at that time, where interracial couples are accepted by everyone and the white characters are at best benign and peripheral to the story (at worst, a little exploitative), might strike some as idealized.

If you can put all those problems aside and read this as an anodyne romantic fantasy, as harmless as a dog-eared library paperback with lots of eye and ear candy, then you're in for a treat. Star Thompson, serving up perfectly coiffed chic throughout in a series of immaculately tailored dresses and more casual but precisely coordinated ensembles (kudos to costume designer Phoenix Mellow), plays the titular Sylvie Johnson. The daughter of a onetime musician (Lance Reddick) who's now a record store owner and a comportment and etiquette teacher (Erica Gimbel) is first seen in a complexly folded evening gown in azure, waiting for a friend at the entrance to a concert hall in 1962. Who should wander by, just passing after finishing a recording session around the corner, but Robert Halloway (former football player turned Broadway actor Asomugha), Sylvie's great love (hence the title, you see) but also the one that got away.

Flash back to five years earlier, when the two met in daddy's record store. Apart from the way she could rock a new look-style, cinched waist skirt, it was Sylvie's deep knowledge of music, from Thelonious Monk to Buddy Holly, that impressed him. She was impressed, presumably, by his courtly manners and charming smile, and even more smitten when she eventually hears him play in a local nightclub. She even thinks he may be the best tenor sax player since John Coltrane, maybe even gaining on Bird.

That gives you a sense of the kind of lush hyperbole the film is prone to. Still, the original tunes written for the movie by Fabrice Lecomte are rather fine, persuasively bebop and blend in well with the eclectic selection of period tunes on the soundtrack. Moreover, when Sylvie, Robert and some of the other characters (especially a shady English band manager played by Jemima Kirke) talk about key signatures and quadruplets, they're reasonably convincing as people who really know jazz. Less convincing given the milieu and the time is the fact that although everyone smokes cigarettes constantly, not even a joint gets lit once, and certainly no one has any of the drug problems that afflicted the many greats alluded to here.

Instead, the inciting incidents are all common or garden-variety romantic mishaps — infidelity, unplanned pregnancies, feelings undeclared lest they're not requited. The retro vibe goes all the way through to the marrow of the movie, and doesn't just reside in Declan Quinn's dazzling stylized cinematography or the use of recognizable sound stages for the street scenes.

Technically, the only aspect that's not quite on point is the somewhat baggy editing; an old-time studio would have brought the running time down a bit, and perhaps gotten rid of the second flashback montage deployed to show key moments in Sylvie and Robert's love story.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition) 
Production: A iAm21 Entertainment production
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Jemima Kirke, Tone Bell, Rege-Jean Page, Alano Miller, Raquel Horsford, Tucker Smallwood, Erica Gimpel, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lotus Simone Plummer, Lance Reddick
Director-screenwriter: Eugene Ashe
Producers: Nnamdi Asomugha, Gabrielle Glore, Jonathan T. Baker, Eugene Ashe, Matthew Thurm
Executive producer: Matt Rachamkin, Bobbi Sue Luther 
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Mayne Berke
Costume designer: Phoenix Mellow
Editor: Dana Congdon
Music: Fabrice Lecomte
Music supervisor: Mandi Collier
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Sales: Endeavor

No rating, 115 minutes