Sylvie & Gold: Ashe Formats an Affair to Remember in Warm Retro Melodrama
Utilizing the once familiar template of the studio staples referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ from the 1940s and 1950s Hollywood era, musician-turned-director Eugene Ashe revitalizes its potential in the sumptuously formatted Sylvie’s Love, a Harlem set story of compromised romance amidst dreams of music and television.
Like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, it’s a mildly tempestuous tale of sacrificing love for the sake of artistic expression and features Tessa Thompson as the titular protagonist, representing a composite of at least two of the three icons Ashe features in the end credit dedication (Diahann Carroll, Nancy Wilson and Doris Day, respectively). A fine vintage which expertly melds its inspirations with the narrative rhythms within period and place, Ashe creates an elegant and eloquent calling card with a story both recuperative and restorative with this portrait of Black love, lives, and ambitions historically overlooked and underutilized.
In 1957 Harlem, aspiring television producer Sylvie (Thompson) works at her father’s (Lance Reddick) record store, wiling away the hours, dreaming. The talented saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) applies for a position, more so for the immediate attraction he feels for Sylvie since at night he performs at the Blue Morocco with Dickie Brewster’s (Tone Bell) Quartet. While Robert and his cohorts are discovered by a French Countess (Jemima Kirke) who begins to groom them for a gig in Paris, his romance with Sylvie blossoms quickly. But Sylvie’s mother (Erica Gimpel) feels Robert is below their social standing, forcing her daughter to keep her engagement to Lacy (Alano Miller), a man with whom she has little in common. Learning she’s pregnant, Sylvie declines to inform Robert so he doesn’t have to choose between duty and dreams. Five years pass, and while a chance opportunity finds Sylvie realizing her dreams of producing, Robert suddenly returns to her orbit.
Thompson proves to be picture perfect as the initially meek and mild Sylvie, her decisions as a young woman dictated by her elitist mother Eunice (a brief but commanding Erica Gimpel of “Fame” fame). As in the fine tradition of a Doris Day romance, she’s made questionable decisions and embraces their consequences, gently nudging herself towards the agency which will make her whole, an amiable ‘girl-next-door’ as compared to the other scions of this tradition in cinema like Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford, who presented characters from privilege and the wrong side of the tracks, respectively.
Thompson is also sometimes reminiscent of Deborah Kerr’s heyday, whose propriety was rarely compromised. She’s joined by an impressive Nnamdi Asomugha, the ex-NFL Oakland Raiders player turned Broadway and film star, who recently headlined 2017’s Crown Heights. They share a familiar but palpable chemistry, the trajectory of which feels sincere and authentic.
A stellar supporting cast includes a (for once) friendly Lance Reddick, brief but catalyzing turns from Eva Longoria and Jemima Kirke, a subdued but heartfelt Wendi McClendon-Covey, a smarmy John Magaro, and a blink-and-you-miss-her MC Lyte). In a noble supporting turn is the gravitational pull of Aja Naomi King as Mona, what could be a thankless role as Sylvie’s sound boarding cousin Mona. King, whose formidable performance in The Birth of a Nation was one of many fine elements besmirched by the castigation which overtook the title on the eve of its awards circuit run in 2017, is equally eye-catching here, even in her limited screen time.
Shot by Declan Quinn (Hamilton; Leaving Las Vegas), Ashe transports us to the croon worthy and vibrant potential of late 1950s and 1960s Harlem, where the moonlit brownstones reflect romantic inclinations. Production design and wardrobe feel fantastically attenuated, and Sylvie’s Love drifts through the crests of her journey to self-actualization effortlessly, like a smooth jazz track. Fabrice Lecomte provides the score, and if there’s anything missing from Sylvie’s construction, it’s the tradition of a narrative title track, for surely, she’s as deserving of the same guidance Gladys Knight & the Pips provided for Carroll’s Claudine (1974).