Review: “Sylvie’s Love” Revives the Art of the Classic Hollywood Romance

There are two jazz-centered movies opening this week, though one of them, the Pixar film “Soul,” can be passed over quickly because it ap...


There are two jazz-centered movies opening this week, though one of them, the Pixar film “Soul,” can be passed over quickly because it approaches the subject merely, um, instrumentally. It’s the story of a middle-school music teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who has long aspired to a career as a jazz pianist. His passion becomes a mere pretext for the movie’s metaphysical twist. (He dies, and his soul goes to a huge processing plant in the sky, run like a mega-bureaucratic corporation, that assigns the blanked-out spirits new traits.) Music, in “Soul,” becomes a mere plot device. By contrast, “Sylvie’s Love,” which streams on Amazon Prime starting December 23rd, written and directed by Eugene Ashe, is among the rare movies to treat jazz seriously and to consider with dramatic care the quandaries and conflicts of the musical life. The film’s styles, tones, and moods are as distinctive as its approach to jazz. (If I’d been able to see it earlier, it would have had a place on my list of the year’s best films.)

At the same time, “Sylvie’s Love”—which is only Ashe’s second dramatic feature—is unusually perceptive in dramatizing its own place in the history of cinema. The film is a period piece, ranging from 1957 to 1963, and it’s one of the few such films that does more than merely depict history; it embraces and adapts the relevant history of cinema itself—Hollywood movies from the era in which it’s set. Moreover, it embodies the filmmaker’s own view of that history as an essential part of the story. In this sense, the film is a living counterfactual history of Hollywood, of the kinds of movies that Hollywood should and could have been making at the time, a movie by a Black filmmaker about the lives of Black people facing the same conflicts of family, romance, and work as white people—along with the inescapable problems that arise from the obstacles of racism by law and convention.

The story is centered on the romance between two Harlem residents, Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson) and Robert Halloway (Nnamdi Asomugha), and the very setup of the film is built on the thrum of longing, the resonant tensions of separation and reunion. The movie starts in 1962, when Robert, after emerging from a recording studio after a day’s work, and Sylvie, all dressed up and waiting alone, reconnect by chance at the door of New York’s Town Hall, where the singer Nancy Wilson is about to give a concert. The story then leaps back to 1957 and the tale of their meeting as well as the relationship that develops. Sylvie, a native New Yorker, is the daughter of Eunice (Erica Gimpel), the locally celebrated founder of a school of etiquette, and Herbert (Lance Reddick), a former saxophonist and the owner of a record store, where Sylvie works, obsessively watching TV and dreaming of a career as a producer of television shows.

Sylvie is sitting behind the counter of the store (and watching “I Love Lucy” on TV) when Robert, a tenor saxophonist from Detroit, now living in Harlem and in need of a day job, comes in to buy a record (Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners”) and to respond to the “Help Wanted” sign in the window. What follows is a roller-coaster romantic melodrama—a love story that carries its protagonists through a slowly building relationship, an abrupt separation (or two or more), and dramatic reunions, all developed through the intricate background of their complicated working lives and the secrets and silences that they maintain in the face of difficulties. Robert is part of a working band, the Dickie Brewster Quartet, that has a long-term gig at the Blue Morocco night club; though a sideman, Robert is considered the group’s leading musical light. Sylvie is engaged to a promising young businessman, Lacy (Alano Miller), who is away in Korea, on a tour of duty. When the band’s new manager, a glamorously rich white countess named Genevieve (Jemima Kirke), gets them a lucrative extended gig in Paris, Robert invites Sylvie to join him on the trip, but—pressured by her family and planning a career of her own—she decides to stay home. Five years later, in 1962, Sylvie is married to Lacy and has both a young child and a job, as a switchboard operator at a TV station, which she soon parlays into a promotion—to the position of assistant to a producer (Ryan Michelle Bathe) who is one of the very few Black female producers at the time. That’s when Robert, back in town to record, passes by Town Hall the night of the Nancy Wilson concert, and—unsurprisingly—the old flame is quickly rekindled.

From the very beginning of the movie, its confected artifices, in the manner of Hollywood studio movies of the period, are as prominent as the stars: when Sylvie is waiting outside Town Hall, her pleated teal dress and white gloves and clutch are as photographically arresting as her searching gaze, just as the narrow marble lobby, with its ornate metal fixtures, is as active as Robert’s confident stride from the studio to the street. The styles of clothing and design (the production design is by Mayne Berke; the costume design, by Phoenix Mellow) aren’t merely derived from the era; they signify it—the design sensibility is pointed, drawing the eye to evocative forms and colors. The movie’s palette emphasizes secondary colors, especially greens and oranges, and piquantly tweaked primary ones, that stand out from more neutral backgrounds and, in particularly heated situations, are placed one atop the other to intensify dramatic conflicts. Impressively, despite the film’s deep period moods, its iconic objects aren’t of the nostalgic kind; appliances and accoutrements may be era-appropriate, but they don’t stand out from the movie’s texture (as they would, to resonant effect, in a film by Wes Anderson, or to trivial effect in the “John Wick” series).

Ashe takes a canny approach to his film’s neoclassical style: he amplifies it through his poised and deft images (the cinematography is by Declan Quinn), which tend to be at just the right distance and with the right depth of field, to draw the eye not to the comprehensive lines of sets or spaces but to the eccentric detail. These images are emphasized by a terse and witty dramaturgy that condenses the action into emblematic moments in a way that’s similarly classically rooted in a bygone Hollywood manner. (This method is one that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked unhappily in Hollywood toward the end of his life, illustrates in a remarkable scene in “The Love of the Last Tycoon.”) Robert, upon entering the record store where Sylvie works, grabs the “Help Wanted” sign from the window and slips it behind the jacket of the record he’s buying; Genevieve plucks a bill out of the cash advance that she’s just handed Dickie, to signify that she’s now his manager; Robert reaches as if to caress Sylvie but instead takes a hairpin from her coiffure in order to pick a locked door.

The pressure and taut control of these gestures arises, above all, from Ashe’s supreme directorial concept, which is centered on the actors’ performances—especially those of the two stars. With their graceful, virtually choreographic poise, Thompson and Asomugha revive the lofty art of dynamic stillness, which is exemplary of classic cinema, certainly through the mid-sixties, but which very few period movies capture. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is another exception.) This quality of immobility has a social and fundamentally political significance: the sculptural bearing of people reflected their awareness of being seen, the rigid norms that they’d internalized, the sense of wary constraint and stringent judgment (whether abstractly moral or religious) that held people still until they took the existential leap into action. Such outbursts of action in “Sylvie’s Love” occur when Sylvie and Robert seal their incipient romance with a kiss, and when Robert bounds athletically up two steps at a time and Sylvie, heading inside from the stoop, comes rushing back to him. As important is Ashe’s penchant for keeping the camera still, using proscenium-like framings (and brief punctuations of closeups) to match the actors in creating drama with incisive economy of movement.

If I’m emphasizing the tones and moods, the textures and gestures, of “Sylvie’s Love,” it’s in part because the drama is somewhat less satisfying; it’s a victim of another sort of artistic tautness. The movie runs just under two hours, and, at that length, it’s too short. What’s missing from “Sylvie’s Love” is digression, as in sidebar scenes where history reinforces the drama and amplifies the characters’ sense of themselves and their place in the world. For instance, there isn’t enough about Robert’s place in the jazz business—it’s dramatized all too briefly and abstractly, with an emphasis on his struggle to establish himself in the age of rock and roll. (Robert’s difficulty does, however, lead to a great line from a record producer, played by John Magaro, who dismisses Robert with a memorably flip aphorism that could be an outtake from the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”) John Coltrane’s name comes up often—even as early as 1957, when he was only beginning to win acclaim. Yet the movie’s six-year span encompasses vast changes in jazz and, for that matter, in Coltrane’s own place in the art; unfortunately, Robert isn’t seen talking music very much with other musicians or confronting those changes on his own. Sylvie’s best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King), becomes an organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality, in rural Georgia, but this detail is dropped in only briefly, to explain her absence from the Town Hall concert. Above all, Sylvie’s work at the TV station gives rise to the most entertaining—and the most curiosity-rooted, virtually documentary—scenes in the movie, suggesting a “My Favorite Year”-like film lurking, undeveloped, in “Sylvie’s Love.”

The movie pursues its dramatic paths in straight lines; it doesn’t turn left or right or pause to unfold its protagonists’ contextualizing thoughts and exploratory activities. Similarly, Ashe’s direction—which so attentively reconstructs the psychological essence of the classic system—doesn’t do what many of the greatest directors of the classic Hollywood era, the greatest melodramatists (such as Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Otto Preminger), did: he doesn’t wrench the system open at the same time. The movie lacks literal and figurative mirror scenes, moments in which the abysses of self-reflection open the characters to themselves and bring to light their unvoiced doubts about their very identities. Still, the film is brought to life with such imaginative power that this absence almost doesn’t matter. “Sylvie’s Love” is among the boldest and most persuasive displays of the preëminence—and the essential substance—of style that the recent cinema has to offer.


2020 in Review

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Newsrust: Review: “Sylvie’s Love” Revives the Art of the Classic Hollywood Romance
Review: “Sylvie’s Love” Revives the Art of the Classic Hollywood Romance
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