The year 2020. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times, and yet, the dawning new year seems to mark a fresh horizon, colored by the warm hues of hope. While the present brims with anticipation and the future with aspiration, Amazon Prime Video delivers a cinematic passport to the past, transporting viewers to sultry, smooth-talkin’ streets of New York City in the new melodrama, “Sylvie’s Love.”
Writer-director Eugene Ashe reimagines the late 1950s and early 60s through the love story of Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). The film opens in 1962. As Sylvie waits by herself in the lobby of Manhattan’s Town Hall theater, she spots an unsuspecting Robert ambling through the streetlamp-lit sidewalks of New York. The glint in Thompson’s and Asomugha’s eyes suggests an unspoken history and the film slips back five years earlier to chronicle the blossoming of their relationship.
From the first scene, Ashe steeps the film in melodramatic sensation — the redolent romance that perfumes yearning, departure, reunion and separation. The film embraces these conventions sincerely; beyond reflecting history as a period piece, “Sylvie’s Love” also pays homage to the zeitgeist of the epoch’s filmmaking. Declan Quinn serves as the cinematographer, and his camera seems to marvel at the slick nightlife, the soft-focused cityscape, the plumes of smoke and the seductive jazz scene.
Sylvie works at her dad’s record store while occasionally modeling for her mother’s etiquette class. She spends most of her day at the music shop, watching TV from behind the front desk. Her fiancé, Lacy (Alano Miller), is away overseas. One day, Robert, a tenor saxophonist for the Dickie Brewster Quartet, wanders into the store to pick up Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” and leaves with the record and a new job. Despite Sylvie’s engagement and her mother’s disapproval of Robert being “beneath her station,” love blooms gently and gingerly between the two leads. When the Dickie Brewster Quartet books a gig in Paris, Robert invites Sylvie to join him on tour, but she decides to stay in Harlem.
As Sylvie, Thompson is charming, and her chemistry with Asomugha is irresistible. The star-crossed young lovers tread familiar romantic road: sultry slow dances, fleeting glances, nervous touches, a tandem bicycle ride, window-fogging car sex, an aching saxophone solo outside her window à la the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” and even the boombox serenade in “Say Anything.” Yet, these conventions sport new, refreshing clothes in Ashe’s sharply stylized, evocative jazz milieu.
There are a few notes in “Sylvie’s Love” that unfortunately fall flat, one of which is the film’s length, which is just under two hours. The narrative drive occasionally idles, and the drama itself, such as Robert’s role in the jazz business, feels flimsy and too fleeting to offer a convincing conflict. Nonetheless, jazz offers a spring of joy for Robert, and the film’s lively soundtrack captures the captivating tones and moods of jazz music.
The camera captures moments where its subjects seem sculptural. Each shot finds visual depth in its delicate, layered scenery. The set design, rich with teals and violets and ambers, feels like the backdrop of portraiture. The characters match the glamor of their environment, wearing soft earthy colors or eye-catching jewel tones, such as Sylvie’s lush turquoise dress in the opening scene.
“Sylvie’s Love” revisits and revises the contours of classical Hollywood romances and melodramas, the inspiration most evident in the way Ashe kindles chemistry between Sylvie and Robert. The film explores characters, who are typically ignored in the genre’s predominantly white stories, with kindness and captivation. Modern movies set in the late 50s through early 60s often center on anti-Black racism and the Civil Rights Movement. These movies carry undeniable importance in American and African-American histories; however, films like “Sylvie’s Love” bear equal importance as they illustrate intimate, everyday stories of love and joy. The film never pretends to present Sylvie and Robert as ciphers for Black people in America — Ashe enriches the characters with unique interests and distinct drives. The storytelling in “Sylvie’s Love” is as tender as the story it shares.