2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, which is needlessly harsh, for mild sexual content
At first blush, Sylvie’s Love — an Amazon Prime original — is a charming romantic drama, very much in the cinematic style of its late 1950s/early 1960s setting.
|Having discovered their shared interest in quality jazz, Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and
Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) can’t help wondering if they have other things in common …
such as a mutual attraction.
We rarely get a film so richly, thoroughly immersed in that period’s jazz scene. The incredibly busy soundtrack is laden with classics — “Waltz for Debby,” “Summertime,” “My Little Suede Shoes,” Sarah Vaughan’s “One Mint Julep” and many, many others — along with era-appropriate originals by score composer Fabrice Lecomte, drolly titled “B-Bop,” “B-Blue” and “B-Loved.”
Stars Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha are enchanting together, and we’re easily charmed as their characters meet and begin what becomes a challenging relationship. Nothing is particularly novel about writer/director Eugene Ashe’s narrative, but his film nonetheless delivers an affectionately retro, comfortably familiar vibe.
Until he hits us with a thoroughly ridiculous and wholly unwarranted left turn, as we near the story’s conclusion. Which, frankly, ruins everything.
I don’t often see a filmmaker sabotage his own work so catastrophically.
Following a fleeting (and rather pointless) flash-forward, the story opens during the hot Harlem summer of 1957. Sylvie (Thompson) fills her days helping at her father’s music store — Mr. Jay’s Records — although she actually spends more time glued to a TV set: not as a casual viewer, but as the careful observer of what goes into the production of a show, because she hopes one day to establish a career in television.
Robert (Asomugha) plays tenor sax in a bebop quartet led by the less talented — but much better known — Dickie Brewster (Tone Bell). Robert chafes at the artistic limitations, but, well, a gig is a gig.
Needing to supplement his income, Robert applies for a job at Mr. Jay’s Records, after seeing a “help wanted” sign in the window. He and Sylvie share a flirty meet-cute moment, but she’s unavailable; she’s waiting for her fiancé to return from war service.
“Unavailable” doesn’t meet “uninterested,” of course, and — as the days pass — nature takes its course. This romantic inevitability is given swooning intensity by pop tunes such as Doris Day’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” the Drifters’ “Fools Fall in Love” and Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
Meanwhile, during one of their nightly club gigs, the quartet is noticed by The Countess (Jemima Kirke), who soon becomes a financial “sponsor” … likely with benefits, much the way Patricia Neal “kept” struggling author George Peppard, in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her initial exchange with Dickie, at this first meeting, is telling.
But she sees genuine talent in Robert, whom she nicknames “B-Flat.”
“So,” she observes, having clocked one of his solos, “you’re the genuine article, aren’t you?”
And, suddenly, he’s being mentioned in the same breath as John Coltrane.
The summer passes all too quickly, and — to their mutual regret — Sylvie and Robert’s lives take them in different directions. The Dickie Brewster Quartet lands a choice gig in Paris; Sylvie remains in Harlem. Robert’s career and fame escalate; Sylvie finds an entry-level job at a local television studio.
Ashe’s narrative lazily drifts back and forth between the two, as five years pass; we get delectable tastes of the quartet at work (the actors actually ghosted by Mark Turner, tenor sax; Uri Caine, piano; Matt Penman, bass; and Ben Perowsky, drums). Then the film catches up to that initial flash-forward, and the story settles into a third act that focuses on the consequences of earlier actions.
Because, yes, Sylvie and Robert cross paths again.
This narrative gains dramatic heft from equally warm and credible sidebar relationships. Aja Naomi King is delightfully vivacious as Sylvie’s best friend, Mona; I particularly enjoyed listening to them reminisce about favorite summer songs. Lance Reddick is terrific as Sylvie’s father, Herbert; we don’t see much of him, but he exudes wisdom, authority and a deep affection for his daughter.
Alano Miller adds a bit of edge as Lacy, Sylvie’s fiancé-turned-husband; there’s a sense that he views her more as an essential appendage for his career ambitions, rather than as a wife he genuinely loves.
Mayne Berke’s production design has a deliberate back-lot look, which makes the film feel like a product of the story’s era; cinematographer Declan Quinn correspondingly employs a slightly grainy film stock, which further emphasizes that sense.
There’s much to like here … until Ashe gob-smacks us with the aforementioned bolt from the blue.
Revealing it would be the worst of spoilers, but I can say this much: The notion that the music industry changed so much, in the early 1960s, that it justifies this major third act contrivance, is simply false. It’s a betrayal of the characters, the overall story, and the investment viewers have made in the film itself.
It also demonstrates startling ignorance on Ashe’s part, particularly in light of how closely attuned to the era’s music scene his film has been, up to this point.
Such a shame. If allowed to build to a conclusion the story obviously deserves, this would have been a nice little B-film.
As is, it’s only a disappointment.