LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The new romantic drama "Sylvie's Love" is about a relationship that blossoms in the late 1950s between a spirited young woman who loves television and a gifted saxophone player who works in her father's record store.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Written and directed by Eugene Ashe and starring the endearing Tessa Thompson, "Sylvie's Love" has all the swoon and style of old Hollywood. But unlike most of old Hollywood, it places a Black couple at its center. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about the very good new film "Sylvie's Love" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. As we mentioned in the intro, "Sylvie's Love" stars Tessa Thompson. It also stars Nnamdi Asomugha plus some other people you might know - from Lance Reddick to Ron Funches. Eugene Ashe uses a lot of very traditional filmmaking in crafting this kind of very old-fashioned style. The story is about Sylvie and Robert having a summer romance when they're young and then seeing what happens to that relationship as they get into their adult lives. I really recommend Aisha's review on NPR as a great starting point, but for people who have not read that yet, Aisha, can you give me kind of the executive summary of what you talked about in that piece?
HARRIS: Well, I am a sucker for a really good, swoony melodrama.
HOLMES: Me, too, man.
HARRIS: You know? Like, give me a Douglas Sirk movie any day. I've also really appreciated Todd Haynes' sort of homages to Sirk, like "Far From Heaven" with Julianne Moore. Like, I just love the look, the feel, the comfort within the discomfort because (laughter) the thing about those types of melodramas is that they look beautiful. You want to live in those places - the beautiful colors and the oranges and the reds and the golds of something like "All That Heaven Allows." Like, I want to live in those worlds, but then, at the same time, there is that sort of intense drama that's playing under it. Sometimes it's sort of psychological. Sometimes it's societal. There's all these different things happening.
And I think what Eugene Ashe does with "Sylvie's Love" is really tap into just that mood and that feeling and that period through the cinematography, which was shot by Declan Quinn, and the costumes that were done by Phoenix Mellow. Like, all of these beautiful, beautiful elements come together to tell a really lovely story that I haven't seen before, not quite in this way, and having a Black couple at the center of it is just, like, the icing on top of the cake. Tessa and Nnamdi have, like, really great chemistry. The way in which they meet, which is - you know, he's sort of an up-and-coming jazz musician. He sees a help wanted sign in the window of the store where she is helping her father. Her father owns this record store, and their meet-cute is incredibly cute.
HOLMES: It really is cute. Even for a meet-cute, it's pretty cute.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. So I just love the way there's this tension because she has a fiance who's serving in the war, and so you know, she brings him up all the time. But it's clear that they have an instant chemistry and attraction. And just watching them sort of do this little dance of like - you know, you watch this movie, and you know it's going to happen, but it's just a matter of when. And I love the way it teases it out in those moments. And then the second half of the movie really, like, kind of switches course as they drift apart, but then their lives are sort of intertwined anyway. And it was really great to see the way in which they keep coming back into each other's lives.
And, you know, I had some small quibbles. I think - in the ways in which it updates this kind of story with a Black couple at the center, I think it attempts to do the same with the way women are often portrayed in these films. And while I was watching it - you know, early on, they establish she wants to be a TV producer. It's the '50s. What are the chances of a Black woman becoming a TV producer? Very low. But I don't think he does too good of a job in the first half really explaining why she wants to be a producer. Like, what does she get out of it? And I was waiting for that to happen.
I think the second half does a good job. Once we actually see her pursuing that dream, it does a better job of doing that. But I felt like for the first half of the movie, it was really front-loaded with his character and what he wanted. And she does make a sacrifice midway through the film that I think kind of tilted it in his favor. But by the end of it, it smooths it out. It does a really good job of showing how difficult it would be for her in that time period to be a working mother who is expected to stay at home. Like, all these things that we often associate with white women in the 1950s and '60s we get to see a Black woman do, so...
HARRIS: ...I overall just really, really loved it.
HOLMES: Yeah. Me, too. And I want to double back to one thing that you said just to kind of iron out - for people who know movies but not necessarily directors, other than "All That Heaven Allows," what are we thinking when we think kind of Douglas Sirk and these midcentury sort of melodramas?
HARRIS: Yeah. I think along with "All That Heaven Allows," "Imitation Of Life" is probably his, like, the movie that most people will know. I feel like it's one of those movies that if you're Black and you grew up at a certain time, your mom and your grandmother were always watching that movie when it was on TV. And "Imitation Of Life" is a melodrama about two women, one white, one Black, who are single mothers, and they wind up living together and helping each other out. The Black mother has a biracial daughter, and so the biracial daughter tries to pass. And it's just filled with all this pathos. And it's a beautiful movie, but it also deals with very, very heavy themes around racism and also sexism and all these different themes. And so Douglas Sirk had a way of putting these beautiful landscapes and beautiful colors and rich textures with these really, really, like, dramatic, sad, weepy subject matters.
HOLMES: Yeah. It's amazing because, like, very early in this film, you see this kind of, like, teal-blue or sky-blue Chanel dress...
HOLMES: ...On Tessa Thompson that they really kind of were trying to find just the right dress. And I think the best reason to start with that scene is tonal - right? - rather than just plotwise. The other thing - you know, you talked about her job as a TV producer. I completely agree with you that I liked the movie better once you started to see her working on her actual show, which is a cooking show. She's initially an assistant, and then, you know, kind of moves up in that show.
HARRIS: An assistant to a Black woman producer.
HOLMES: Yes. Exactly. I think once you start to see her at work and what that job entails, I think you get a better sense of that career and why it's meaningful to her. And I appreciated that because there are parts of this movie, particularly toward the end - because tonally and aesthetically, it's really different, but it reminded me in places of "Love & Basketball," not just because they're both Black couples but because there is a sense that the woman's aspirations and wants for herself are just as valid and legitimate. And it's OK even if she's having more success than he is. That is valid and fine.
I mean, a lot of times, with a movie that's set in the '50s and '60s, you'll see one where, like, the woman just wants her husband to accept that she wants any job, you know what I mean? Like, I don't just want to stay home. I want to go out and have a job. This is not just that. This is that she really cares about her work. She doesn't want to have to give up her work no matter what is happening in her life. It's one of the things that you get the sense she really needs in order to feel fully fulfilled. It's an important part of her identity, and I don't think it's that common for that to be sort of honored in movies about couples at all.
HOLMES: I think the way that they play with the relationship in this film gives some realistic space to gender roles and performance, almost, between this couple - like, the pressures that they would feel - without allowing the relationship to be defined by those things.
HARRIS: Right. And I think that's part of what made me keep thinking of "All That Heaven Allows" or another movie that I mentioned in my review, "Paris Blues" from 1961. And there are a lot of similarities there, like - and Eugene Ashe actually had spoken about that being a direct reference for him, a reference point for him. But the way in which those characters in "Paris Blues," the Black couple played by Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll - Sidney Poitier is playing a jazz musician, like, an expat in Paris, and Diahann Carroll's character is there with her girlfriend on a vacation. And they meet. They spend much of the movie, her and Sidney Poitier, talking about, like, what it means to be Black and the fact that he left America to come here. We've talked so much about the visual stuff here, but there's also just so many scenes that are really talky in the best kind of way, where it's just people trying to figure things out and trying to figure each other out.
HOLMES: For sure.
HARRIS: And so I really, really appreciated that aspect of it. And I also think, like, as you were mentioning, the way in which it gives space to both halves of the relationship and both of their wants and desires - I was really worrying in the second half of this film that it was going to teeter into "A Star Is Born" territory because he's a jazz musician. And then all of a sudden, he's kind of losing his appeal, and his career is on the downswing, and...
HOLMES: Because music is changing.
HARRIS: Yes - because music is changing. It's the '60s. Everyone wants to listen to Stevie Wonder - like, pop, pop. And it was just - I was really worried it was going to turn into that, and surprisingly, it doesn't. In fact, like, there's no drug use, I think, at all in this movie. For a jazz movie, that's, like, a - that's a big thing.
HOLMES: I also really loved just listening to a lot of music in this film.
HARRIS: Nancy Wilson.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think it's rare for me to see a movie where I think that they manage to celebrate what music means to people and what it means to people's relationships. I mean, obviously, when you have a character who's a jazz musician, it only makes sense that you would get that feel. But I think it's more than that, right? It's not just that it's his kind of vocation and gift. It's also just the importance of music to the two of them. They listen to music together. They recommend music to each other. They talk about what they love.
I think one of the things that draws him to her initially is that she has her own opinions about and knowledge about music, which I find very charming. I think, you know, because she works in her dad's record store, she does not need him to explain jazz to her, to say the least. And she kind of knows her own mind when it comes to music, and it's equal sort of regard for each other in a way that I thought was very persuasive.
And I loved some of the, like - I loved seeing Lance Reddick in this as Sylvie's father, like, just a really - like, he's moved into his dad years (laughter) where he just sort of - you know, this is the first time I've seen that. I thought it was really charming. I think he's really good in it. I also liked the fact that there is another woman who does decide, I'm going to get married. I don't want to be in my job anymore. I'm going to leave and go and have kids, and that's going to be my priority. And I don't think that's either seen as aspirational or pitiable. I think it's just a different way to go, and that's what she wants to do. That's not what Sylvie wants to do. And I really liked the fact that they made space for two women to be in a movie, one of whom decides she really cares about keeping her career going, and one of whom decides she's going to prioritize being at home. And neither one of them is a cautionary tale.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, even Mona, Sylvie's cousin, played by Aja Naomi King, she's really fun, free-spirited. She's kind of her best friend, especially in the first half of the film. And later on, we see her becoming more engaged in activism. I think at one point, there's a scene where she's at the March on Washington, helping to coordinate it. And I really appreciate that we do see so many different facets of womanhood. And I will say, like, I mentioned, you know, the Douglas Sirk melodramas, and obviously, there are discussions around racism and those types of things, but this movie is not that heavy. Like, it's heavy, but, like, part of the joy of it is just, like, it's Black people. They don't deny the existence of racism, but it is not the be-all, end-all. It's just kind of in the background, and I appreciated not seeing any Black people in physical pain, perhaps, you know, emotional pain. But...
HOLMES: For real. You know, what I love about this is it's so luscious and charming and ultimately, you know, as, we've said a bunch of times, great to look at.
HOLMES: Well, "Sylvie's Love" is available on Amazon Prime. You can watch it. Tell us what you think about "Sylvie's Love." Find us at facebook.com/PCHH and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Aisha, thank you for this wonderful conversation, as always.
HARRIS: It was a pleasure.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you want to hear recommendations from us every week, including some that are specific only to our newsletter, subscribe to that at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be looking back at the movie "Bring It On."
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