Extraordinary is one word that resonates in Eugene Ashe’s “Sylvie’s Love,” but jazz is the sound that permeates the film, even though you get a good helping of America’s soundtrack in the ’60s. The film stars Nnamdi Asomugha as Robert, the aspiring musician, and Tessa Thompson as Sylvie—both of whom are co-producers—as almost star-crossed lovers (which is not a spoiler alert). Their misfortunes, however, belong to them and not unforeseen circumstances. From the opening scenes two things bleed together—jazz and television, each of which is passionately embraced by Sylvie as she sits behind the counter at her father’s record shop. In the background on the television, in another time marker, Lucille Ball stuffs her mouth full of chocolates.
Location is evoked poignantly throughout the film, mainly in New York with Detroit as a significant second city. Both the love affair and jazz are cued several moments into the film when Robert enters the record store looking for Thelonious Monk’s album “Brilliant Corners.” Sylvie one ups him later when she asks if he’s heard “Way Out West.” He hasn’t and she insists he should check out Sonny Rollins since she has learned he plays saxophone. And any film that even mentions John Coltrane, Miles Davis, James Moody, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan has enough gravitas. Moreover, the club settings are a nod to Birdland or the Cotton Club, and Genevieve (Jemima Kirke), the white countess-agent-impresario, conveys memories of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, in whose apartment Parker dies. Parker’s presence is more evident when two dancers mambo to his recording “Little Suede Shoes.” Hey, even the music magazine Down Beat is cited.
Those waiting for the drugs, police brutality and racist attacks will be disappointed. Except for the brief discussion of discrimination in the recording industry, and two whites being called bigots, there is little attention devoted to race. Aspects of caste occur only when Sylvie’s mother intrudes with reminders to her daughter about their standing in the community.
Hardly a scene transpires that isn’t delightfully festooned with music, and it’s most appealing when Robert is on the bandstand with a quartet and invoking the sounds of hard bop. The only wish is that his solos were longer. The film begins as a tender love story between two young adults but it gradually morphs into a complicated affair that given the intensity of their moments brings an unsurprising outcome. Among the things that distinguishes this film is the way Ashe weaves the lovers’ relationship across a six-year period, although the cutting back and forth is often a bit convoluted. But that confusion is salvaged by the music that keeps the sequences in historical order.
I have seen my share of films where a jazz musician is featured, including “A Man with a Horn,” “A Man Called Adam,” “Paris Blues,” et al and even a number of less than effective bio-pics and documentaries, but in “Sylvie’s Love” Ashe has the subtleties and nuances well-crafted, nicely blended and Mark Turner’s saxophone solos in Robert’s hands is about as good as you can get in a jazz interlude.
There are several scenes in which I thought of Clint Eastwood productions, particularly when Robert and Sylvie are dancing. But it isn’t Johnny Hartman crooning as he does in “The Bridges of Madison County,” but a sweet female voice reprising the “Shadow of Your Smile” or Jackie Wilson wailing “To Be Loved.” And I can’t recall a film with such a heartfelt moment as when the lovers are in the theater, their eyes searching for clarity, as Nancy Wilson sings “and all my tomorrows belong to you.” This is about as close as the film gets to being a tad sentimental.
All the romantic promise is soon shared with heartbreak and separation when two careers do not cohere. He’s off to Paris with the quartet and she’s stuck as television assistant on a cooking show.
The inevitable facts of life occur, but there are hints that the two lovers will return to each other’s arms, but some honesty and sacrifice is forthcoming before this is done. Ashe’s allusions to the music industry are done without the usual good guy/bad guy motif, and viewers will admire the way he merges Motown into the mix, and later the Detroit assembly line and the factories. Buried in the film’s credit crawl are scenes suggesting what may have happened to the couple, and it’s the kind of expectations you would have wished for them.
As Sylvie relates to her best friend/cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) about Robert’s lovemaking—that it was extraordinary—is the perfect word for Ashe’s “Sylvie’s Love” and it’s one you’ll want to see a second time, if no more than to relive the musical moments. Watch it on Amazon Prime.