I was excited to see this Amazon original movie because it has two things I love: the beautiful and talented Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Creed, and the underrated MIB: International) and an old-school record store. It starts with a couple meeting at a record store. As a kid who loved music, I spent many days at Off the Record, Blue Meanie, Tower, and Lou’s Records. Now all I’ve got is Record City in Hillcrest (but I digress).
Thompson plays Sylvie, a young woman working at Jay’s Records in Harlem. That’s the shop her dad owns, that also sells TVs and phonographs. She’s happier sitting in front of the tube watching I Love Lucy than helping customers, but when Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) walks in looking for a job, sparks fly. He’s a struggling musician who plays saxophone at a local club. He figures working at a record store will score him a big discount on some jazz discs. He ends up getting the records for free, and Sylvie, who’s already engaged. And that was something I both loved and hated about this premise. It was refreshing that her character was happily engaged. He’s stationed overseas (I think they mentioned a war). It’s not like she’s lamenting him not being there and being lonely, or talking about how she was forced into this relationship by her mom. The controlling Eunice (Erica Gimpel of Fame) runs etiquette and deportment classes for young girls, and she’d obviously love nothing more than for her daughter to marry a guy from a rich family (his dad is a doctor). Since it’s 1957, we could understand a girl being forced into a relationship by parents. Yet she’s happy with the guy. As Robert says to her “You can’t stop talking about your fiance.”
So that becomes one of my “protagonist pet peeves”, which is — in movies, audiences always like the protagonist, even if it’s someone who escaped prison and is eluding the law. In this, if Sylvie was cheating on a fiance she loved, we’d be furious with her (if the person being cheated on was a friend or family member of ours). Yet in the movies, we don’t care, because…look at those two. They have chemistry, and we’re happy that they’re both happy. And even when she makes the choice to stay with her fiance early on, it’s refreshing that he’s not someone who drinks too much (although he always seems to have a brandy snifter in hand), or treats her badly. Sure, he doesn’t want her working and doesn’t seem the most supportive of her dreams to become a TV producer; yet for the time period, that’s probably rather typical. And speaking of the time period, this was filmed in gorgeous technicolor, with interesting set design. Cinematographer Declan Quinn deserves a bit of credit for some of that, too.
The film quickly jumps five years to 1962. Robert’s band is rather successful in Europe. He doesn’t know Sylvie had his baby, and…that’s where something else rather obvious pops out (no pun intended). Why would a man from a rich family, still marry a woman who cheated on him and got pregnant with another man’s baby? And again, that should make EVERYONE in the audience think her husband is a saint, not a bad guy for squashing her TV producer dreams. So when she wants to stay late at work, as an assistant to the producer (doing jobs like going to the store to buy meat for the cooking show), well…why aren’t we on the side of the husband who is trying to land a big client and they’re coming over for dinner and she needs to cook? But I digress (that beef bourguignon did look good). Oh, and guess what? We’re supposed to STILL like Sylvie when she decides to go see Robert and his band play a concert in town, lying to her husband about working late. And the way she’s so quick to throw away her marriage and the career she’s worked so hard for, to follow him to Detroit because he could possibly make it in Motown…just seems baffling. Also, what happens when he goes to Motown to get a job his friend promised him, is one of the most utterly ridiculous things in the world. It wouldn’t have happened like that, and it’s at that point that I realized…for as much as I was adoring the first half of this movie, the second half becomes cliches and goofy situations that would have never occurred anywhere in the real world.
But back to Robert. Not only is Asomugha (a former NFL player) rather stiff as an actor, why are we supposed to like his character so much more than her husband’s? He is the one who pursued her, knowing she was married. He is the one who’s making her quit her job, sell her house and uproot her family, to follow him to Detroit. Earlier, he tried to get her to drop everything to go with him on tour in Paris. Why should this be looked upon by the audience as romantic, or a more viable reason than her husband was proposing? Oh wait, it’s because he loves music and has such a passion for the saxophone. Lou Gossett, Jr. said it best to Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. Gere was screwing up and was going to get thrown out of training. Gossett asked him why he even wanted to be there, and Gere reponds, “I want to fly jets, sir.” To which Gossett barks, “My grandmama wants to fly jets!!”
My grandmama wants to play sax and become rich and famous. Who doesn’t? So he can do that where Sylvie lives, and raise a family; he could even be a successful touring musician (which he is), and return home in between tours. Why does she have to go to the Motor City?
When I think of all the things I liked about this movie — Phoenix Mellow’s costume design, Fabrice Leconte’s score, and hearing great songs of the era; those included three by my favorite, Sam Cooke, a few by Nancy Wilson, Bill Haley, Little Anthony, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, and even Eva Longoria singing Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (you know that better as the Doris Day song “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” also covered by Cake). Fun Fact: the song was also featured in the Lou Gossett, Jr. movie The Cuban last year, about a musician with dementia; seek it out.
Anyway, the point I was making before I went off on one of my usual praisings of Lou Gossett that I sometimes do, is that the whole retro tone of this film was terrific. It had an If Beale Street Could Talk/La La Land vibe. Everything was done well, including the opening title sequence, which reminds you of old movies where every little detail was done lavishly. Yet writer/director Eugene Ashe has problems with clunky dialogue at times and pacing issues, and basically did a horrible job fleshing out these characters; whether that’s the two main characters, or the supporting characters. What happened to the daughter? What about the dad? Where did the mom disappear to? The bandmates?
It’s noble that he wanted to give us an old-fashioned love story, and it’s nice that we get African-Americans in the lead. Ashe just has to learn to avoid cliches and other inconsistencies.
I do like that he gave me something I often see missing in romances. Conversations that show why the two characters would be into each other (other than the obvious physical attraction). And hearing them talk about Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other musicians, is perfect.
His jazz group is called the Dickie Brewster Quartet. It was also refreshing that the white people who were managing/producing them, weren’t out to screw them over. Although every time they said the name, it kept making me think of the name of a band that would have Dickie Betts and Punky Brewster.
Overall, the film does offer some retro escapism that’s pleasant for a few hours. Nothing like seeing the colors, cool cars, and old school movie theatre marquees (although La Dolce Vita came out a few years before 1962, not sure if it would still be running).
2 stars out of 5.