The ingredients of Sylvie’s Love are unbelievably promising: – the late 50s/early 60s New York setting, the sumptuous production and costume design, jazz music combined with a stunning orchestral score, Tessa Thompson, romance – all of this is pretty much tailor-made to appeal directly to this particular film-lover. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to all of this promise, but there is much to be enjoyed in a type of film that does not come along very often anymore.
Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works at her Dad’s (Lance Reddick) record store and although she knows a lot about music (especially jazz), her real passion is television. Robert (Nnamdi Ashomugha), a jazz saxophonist with the Dickie Brewster Quartet needs a job to supplement his gig at the Blue Morocco club, so he starts working at the record store too. Sylvie and Robert enjoy a summer romance, despite Sylvie being engaged to Lacy (Alano Miller), but he’s out of the picture, serving in Korea. One day a rich Countess (Jemima Kirke) spots the quartet at the club and starts managing the band, getting them a tour of Paris jazz clubs. Sylvie realises she’s pregnant but doesn’t want to stop Robert going to Europe and fulfilling his dream with the band, so she doesn’t tell him. Five years later, Robert and Sylvie are reunited after a chance encounter outside a theatre. Sylvie is now married to Lacy (who has brought up the child as his own) and she finds a job as a TV producer’s assistant on a cooking show. Sylvie finds herself torn between her career and the two men in her life.
The costume design by Phoenix Mellow (who worked on Mad Men) is, of course, a real highlight of Sylvie’s Love. When Jemima Kirke’s Countess is introduced, she is wearing a jaw-dropping red silk number which has a hood incorporated into the design. Tessa’s best outfit is perhaps the sparkly black Chanel dress with the classic white Peter Pan collar that she wears at a New Year’s party. While the production design of the interiors is similarly gorgeous, it is extremely apparent that the exteriors are Hollywood studio backlots and not real New York streets. There are occasions where director Eugene Ashe leans into the Hollywood feel – eg. the beautifully lit shot of Sylvie and Robert dancing in the moonlit street – but perhaps it should have acknowledged the artifice more. If this were a musical, this look would absolutely work, but in what is supposed to be a realistic drama, the effect feels slightly off.
The music – both the jazz tunes played by the band (including a version of Summertime) and the stirring string score by Fabrice Lecomte is a highlight. While the writing is a little uneven, some lines of dialogue are memorable, such as; “I don’t think I’ll ever catch that train” (referring to John Coltrane). One of the best shots of the film involves Sylvie and her cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) listening to a record player while lying on the floor, with their heads inverted to one another, as Sylvie tells Mona about falling in love with Robert. The acting from Thompson, Asomugha and (in a smaller role) Lance Reddick is excellent. The romantic/sexual chemistry between the leads could have been a little more convincing, however, but this is probably more a fault of the narrative structure than the performances.
The biggest drawback of Sylvie’s Love is in its structure (some parts of the narrative move too quickly and others are repetitive) and under-development of certain characters and elements. Eva Longoria has a tiny role as Carmen, Dickie Brewster’s wife and although it is refreshing that the film doesn’t focus on race, it would have been interesting to have seen more of their interracial marriage in this time period. Sylvie’s mother runs a Finishing School and clearly has a huge influence on Sylvie but is nearly always referred to, rather than actually shown. Lacy making the decision to raise another man’s child is pretty radical for the time period as well and it would have been good to have seen these discussions. Kirke’s Countess is another independent, modern woman that it would have been great to learn more about. Further down the line, Sylvie’s cousin Mona calls Sylvie from various places around the country where she is participating in Civil Rights marches which feels like a tiny acknowledgement of the real-life historical context to the story. We only get frustratingly tiny glimpses of these interesting side-characters and you feel yourself wanting to know more about all of them.
One of the strongest elements is seeing Sylvie’s job, firstly as a producer’s assistant and then as a TV producer in her own right. We get some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into a 1960s cooking show, with a surprisingly feisty host. The second half of the film which takes place after the time jump is where the wheels start to come off the narrative. It very much feels like your watching a long, intricate, difficult-to-adapt novel on-screen. It is therefore surprising to learn that this isn’t an adaptation, but an original screenplay by Ashe. There are multiple points where we reach what feels like a natural conclusion and then the story…just keeps on going. This has the unfortunate effect of making the film feel much longer than it actually is.
Sylvie’s Love has much to commend – it is still radical to see a black love story on screen, especially one that takes place in the 1960s, that doesn’t focus on adversity. As we know from the Academy constantly only nominating black actors if they’re playing slaves and servants, it is vitally important that there is a range of roles and films out there, that show the full spectrum of the black experience. The costumes and music are both a delight, but unfortunately, this is not enough to make it truly great. The direction is good, but the writing is, unfortunately, the weakest element and it feels like the script could have done with a few more drafts. Sylvie’s Love is still absolutely worth watching on a big screen and now that Amazon has picked it up, it remains to be seen what kind of release it will get. This is the kind of grown-up movie that there should be a big demand for.