December 29, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Eugene Ashe
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Detroit from 1957 to the mid-1960s, the dramatic film “Sylvie’s Love” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and a few Latinos) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A young woman who’s engaged to be married meets and falls in love with a jazz musician who doesn’t meet her mother’s approval because he comes from a lower social class.
Culture Audience: “Sylvie’s Love″ will appeal primarily to people who like sweeping romantic dramas reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“Sylvie’s Love” is a perfect movie to watch if you’re in the mood for a rollercoaster ride of a love story that’s told in the epic and lush way that romantic movies used to be made in the 1950s and early 1960s. That’s the period of time when most of “Sylvie’s Love” takes place, and it’s from the perspective of African Americans. There are expected moments of passionate romance and crushing heartbreak, but there are also social issues in the story that have to do with race, class and gender roles in society.
Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, “Sylvie’s Love” shows the romantic saga between Sylvie Johnson (played by Tessa Thompson) and Robert Holloway (played by Nnamdi Asomugha) that begins when they meet in New York City in the summer of 1957, when they’re both in the early 20s. Robert is the saxophonist in the Dickie Brewster Quartet, a semi-successful jazz group that has been gigging around the city but doesn’t have a record contract yet. Sylvie works part-time in her father’s record store, but she is expected to eventually become a wife and homemaker.
Robert first sees Sylvie through the window of Mr. Jay’s Records, a record store owned by her father (played by Lance Reddick), who’s only identified as Mr. Jay in the movie. She’s watching TV while sitting behind the counter at the store. Robert looks at Sylvie in the way that viewers can tell that if it’s not love at first sight, then it’s at least major attraction at first sight. Robert sees a Help Wanted sign in the store window, takes the sign, and uses it as an excuse to strike up a conversation with the woman behind the store counter.
Sylvie is a TV fanatic and spends as much time watching TV as she can. And so, when Robert walks into the store, she doesn’t pay much attention to him. He browses through some records and asks her a question that she barely answers because she’s focused on watching TV. When he goes to the counter with an album, he asks how much the record would cost if he got an employee discount. He holds up the Help Wanted sign to indicate that he wants to work there.
She tells him that the store actually doesn’t need to hire any new employees. Sylvie explains that her image-conscious mother wanted the sign in the store so that if people who knew the Johnson family saw Sylvie working in the store, they wouldn’t think that the family was using Sylvie as free labor and that the family could afford to hire new employees. It’s the first indication that Sylvie’s mother Eunice Johnson (played by Erica Gimpel) is very class-conscious and obsessed with appearances. Not surprisingly, Eunice runs a finishing school for girls to teach them decorum and etiquette so they will be “proper” ladies for society.
Even though Sylvie told Robert that the store didn’t need to hire any new employees, when Sylvie’s father meets Robert, he takes a liking to the young man and hires him on the spot. Sylvie’s father tells Robert that he too was a jazz saxophonist, but he gave up his dreams of being a professional musician because of the financial obligations of taking care of a family. Robert has an easygoing, respectful manner, and it isn’t long before Sylvie is charmed by him too.
On one of Robert’s first days on the job, Sylvie accidentally locks the two of them in the store’s basement. While they wait for her father to arrive to unlock the door, they start talking about music, and she recommends that Robert get Sonny Rollins’ “Way Out West” album. Robert is impressed by how much Sylvie knows about music, but she tells him that her biggest passion is television. She says that her dream job would be to work as a TV producer.
Sylvie and Robert are showing signs that they’re very attracted to each other, but there’s one big problem: She’s engaged to another man. Sylvie proudly tells Robert that her fiancé Lacy Parker (played by Alano Miller) is the son of doctor and that she met Lacy at a cotillion. Robert doesn’t seem that impressed and he doesn’t know what a cotillion is until Sylvie explains it to him.
As time goes on, it becomes clear that this engagement to a doctor’s son is making Sylvie’s mother Eunice happier than it’s making Sylvie. Not once does Sylvie say that she’s in love with Lacy. She seems to be pressured into the marriage because Lacy is considered to be a “good catch” and Sylvie likes Lacy enough to commit to marrying him. Lacy is away traveling for a certain period of time, which is why Lacy doesn’t meet Robert, and Lacy isn’t around when Sylvie and Robert start to fall in love.
Robert tries to hide his disappointment that Sylvie is engaged, but he still invites her to see him perform with his band at a local club. Sylvie goes to the show with her cousin Mona (played by Aja Naomi King), who is also Sylvie’s best friend. Sylvie and Mona are enthralled by what they see during this performance, since the Dickie Brewster Quartet is very talented, with Robert being a standout player.
The other members of the Dickie Brewster Quartet are drummer Chico Sweetney (played by Regé-Jean Page), who is Robert’s extroverted best friend; bass player Buzz Walcott (played by Courtney Leonard), who has a somewhat goofy personality; and egotistical band leader Dickie Brewster, who is the group’s pianist and chief songwriter. Chico and Mona have an immediate flirtation, and they begin dating soon after they meet.
Sylvie has led a sheltered life and has never really experienced going to nightclubs. She’s intrigued and excited, but she also becomes acutely aware that she might not fit in with the fast party crowd that frequents the nightclub. One of the club regulars is a woman named Connie (played by Raquel Horsford), who’s about 10 years older than Sylvie.
When Connie sees Robert and Sylvie sitting at a table together and talking after the show, Connie makes it clear that she’s interested in Robert. Connie cattily tells Robert that he can hang out with her when he’s done babysitting. Connie says it loud enough for Sylvie to hear. Sylvie looks slightly embarrassed. When Robert walks Sylvie home, they kiss for the first time.
During that fateful summer, Sylvie and Robert spend more time together, and they become more attracted to each other. They have double dates with Mona and Chico. Sylvie tells Robert how much she admires his talent and encourages him in his musical endeavors. Sylvie tells Robert, “I’ve never met anyone who plays music like you do.”
Robert, who is originally from Detroit, opens up about his life and tells Sylvie that he used to work on the assembly line of an auto plant. But he decided to take a big risk and quit his job to move to New York City and try to make it as a professional musician. His mother died two years ago, and he tells Sylvie: “When my mother passed, I realized that life’s too short to waste time with things you don’t absolutely love.”
Robert and Sylvie’s budding romance hits a jealousy snag when he invites her to a party attended by a lot of his nightclub friends, which include a sassy woman named Carmen (played by Eva Longoria), who runs the boarding house where the the band members live. At the party, Sylvie sees Robert dancing with Connie and gets jealous. Sylvie leaves the party in a huff, and then Sylvie and Robert have an argument out in the street,
Robert tells Sylvie that she doesn’t have a right to judge about “cheating” since she’s engaged to another man. Sylvie says that since Robert invited her to the party, she wanted to at least feel like she was special. Then they both admit that they want to feel special to each other. And not long after that, Sylvie and Robert become lovers.
During the time that Robert and Sylvie begin dating, things start to progress in Robert’s career. A wealthy French socialite named Countess Genevieve (played by Jemima Kirke), who also goes by the name Gertie, has taken an interest in the Dickie Brewster Quartet. She recommends them for gigs in Paris, invests money in buying them new clothes, and eventually becomes the group’s official manager.
Just as Robert and Sylvie’s romance is heating up, it comes to an abrupt halt when the Dickie Brewster Quartet gets offered a series of performances in Paris. Robert invites Sylvie to go with him to Paris, but Sylvie decides that it’s best if she and Robert go their separate ways permanently. (This isn’t spoiler information since it’s in the movie’s trailer.)
And there’s another reason for why Sylvie breaks up with Robert, but she keeps it a secret from many people, including Robert. She doesn’t see him or communicate with him again until 1962, five years after they broke up, when she unexpectedly finds out that Robert is back in New York City to record an album. Sylvie is now married to Lacy, they have a 5-year-old daughter named Michelle (played by Lotus Plummer), and Sylvie has been working as an assistant producer for a TV series called “The Lucy Wolper Cooking Show.”
Sylvie loves her job, and her producer boss Kate Spencer (played by Ryan Michelle Bathe) is a supportive mentor to Sylvie. The movie’s comic relief is provided by the cooking show’s host Lucy Wolper (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey), who’s prim and polished on TV, but in real life she has a bawdy sense of humor. Even though Sylvie is very happy in her career, her marriage is having problems because the job requires her to work long hours, which irritates Sylvie’s husband Lacy, who is a sales executive for an unnamed company.
Lacy doesn’t have a problem with Sylvie working outside the home, as long as it doesn’t affect her ability to have meals ready for him at his expected time, or interfere with plans he makes when he wants Sylvie to entertain clients in their home or go to his work-related events. And so, when Sylvie sees Robert again, it triggers thoughts and feelings about their romance. Meanwhile, Robert has been growing tired of being creatively stifled by Dickie, so he contemplates an offer from record company executive Sid Shuur (played by John Magaro) to launch a solo career as a musician/songwriter.
What happens in the story at times veers into melodrama, but it’s entirely realistic. The beauty of this movie is in the credible and almost poetic way that Thompson and Asomugha portray the love between Sylvie and Robert. It’s an emotionally difficult journey fraught with uncertainty over the future and circumstances that can keep them apart. But it’s also a story of emotional fulfillment and chasing happiness where you can find it.
And even though the romance in “Sylvie’s Love” began out of infidelity, writer/director Ashe doesn’t make this a cheap and tawdry story. Rather, the movie demonstrates the hard choices that people sometimes have to make when they fall in love with the right person at the wrong time. Viewers will feel invested in finding out that happens to Sylvie and Robert because these characters are relatable on many levels.
Everything about “Sylvie’s Love” is a glorious ode to the era in which the movie take place. The direction, music, cinematography, costume design and production design are among the technical elements that fit this movie like a snug, elbow-length satin glove. However, you don’t have to be a retro movie fan to enjoy “Sylvie’s Love,” which has timeless themes about love and self-identity. It’s not a perfect film, but it perfectly captures the emotions of a complicated romance.
Amazon Prime Video premiered “Sylvie’s Love” on December 23, 2020.