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‘Sylvie’s Love’ Review: Tessa Thompson Shines in a Jazzy 1950s Romance

Eugene Ashe resurrects the old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama for the kind of Black love story that it was never allowed to tell.

Tessa Thompson in "Sylvie's Love"

“Sylvie’s Love”

Amazon Prime

They don’t make ’em like this anymore, but then again, they never really did. An unfailingly sincere melodrama that’s as warm and old-fashioned as someone draping their cardigan over a pair of cold shoulders on a cold August night, “Sylvie’s Love” is such a straightforward throwback to the Sirkian “women’s pictures” Hollywood used to churn out for white housewives that it’s difficult to say what’s more delightfully jarring about it: That a dead genre has been given resurrected for the kind of Black period love story that it was never allowed to tell, or that writer-director Eugene Ashe has done so without even the slightest wink of irony.

Superficial comparisons to “La La Land” might be inevitable considering the film’s star-crossed shape and bebop-obsessed male lead (brace for another one of those guys who isn’t sure if he needs to save jazz or be saved from it). But “Sylvie’s Love” has less interest in commenting on the Technicolor romances that Hollywood made in the 1950s than it does in being one of them. By that same token, the unreality of Ashe’s gauzy backlot fantasia — its fateful coincidences and fairy tale confessions compounded by an idealized vision of a mid-century America where racism is no more of a nuisance than a flat note in a trumpet solo — isn’t a symptom of ahistorical naiveté so much as a show of fidelity to a genre that’s never been able to romanticize the world in quite the same way. The effect is intoxicating and swoon-worthy, even when Ashe struggles to reconcile his film’s busy melodrama with its broad aversion to conflict.

Tessa Thompson has never struggled to seem every inch the modern woman, but the “Annihilation” powerhouse is so vibrant and natural as the daughter of a record-store owner in 1957 Harlem that it feels like she could’ve been Dorothy Dandridge in another lifetime. Sylvie is more interested in television than music — “I Love Lucy” helps keep her mind off her war-deployed fiancé — but the time signature of her entire life gets scrambled when her father (the ever-immaculate Lance Reddick) hires a handsome and starry-eyed tenor sax player to help at the shop.

His name is Robert Halloway, he’s played with a certain withdrawn charm by Nnamdi Asomugha (whose acting career has gotten so accomplished that his past as a former All-Pro defensive back in the NFL hardly merits a mention anymore), and he’s tall enough to make it seem like his head’s in the clouds even when he’s just sorting through some vinyl. That’s before he starts riffing about how “life’s too short to waste time on things you don’t absolutely love,” and you realize that Robert’s height has nothing to do with it. He’s a noble dreamer who’s tortured by the questionable nobility of his dreams; dreams like becoming the best jazz player since John Coltrane even as the music world is moving on to Motown, and earning the love of a beautiful woman even as she prepares to marry another man.

Of course, Sylvie has dreams of her own — big ones, though perhaps not big enough to make room for anyone else. “I want you to be happy even if I can’t be part of your life,” Robert says while spit-polishing the sword he’s ready to fall on, but is happiness sustainable if it can’t be shared with certain people? And what good is fulfilling one dream if it comes at the expense of another? It was a cruel god that made love the opposite of convenience.

Ashe’s staging is largely anodyne and flatter than his characters’ feelings demand — a ravishing midnight stroll down an empty Harlem street is the exception that proves the rule — but the director orchestrates a killer band of collaborators with a singleness of vision that allows “Sylvie’s Love” to reach for the sublime. Declan Quinn’s gauzy cinematography wraps Fabrice Lecomte’s convincing set of jazz originals in just the right amount of softness, while Phoenix Mellow’s sumptuous costumes — almost imperceptibly heightened during the recording sessions where Robert styles himself after Sidney Poitier, and flat-out ravishing in glitzier stretches like the night that Sylvie wears a Tiffany’s blue stunner to a Nancy Sinatra concert — help the movie strike a sustainable balance between its human-sized emotions and the larger-than-life drama that provokes them.

As you might have gathered, “Sylvie’s Love” isn’t the kind of movie where characters sit back, get high, and casually surrender to the chaos of living in a world that doesn’t always make it easy to follow the melody. Once Robert and Sylvie have their first kiss, everything around them is super-charged by the vertiginous soap opera of falling in love.

Robert doesn’t just throw a pebble at Sylvie’s window to get her attention; he blasts out a sax solo on the curb outside her apartment (suck it, Lloyd Dobler). When Robert’s sketchy manager books his quartet a gig in Paris — Jemima Kirke in a fizzy cameo that’s equal parts Zelda Fitzgerald and Scooter Braun — Sylvie doesn’t just say a quick “see you in five years.” She shows up to swallow a big secret right as the love of her life is leaving for the airport.

The brief encounter that brings them back together a half-decade later is split across a “Carol”-esque flashback that frames their love as a cosmically fated series of near misses and silent refrains. Heart attacks! Secret love-children! Miles Davis! The entire civil rights movement gets reduced to a single wide shot in the face of such florid drama. It’s almost enough to sell you on the idea that Asomugha’s performance needed to be slightly inert and humorless just to keep the rest of the movie from succumbing to its own fever.

If anything, “Sylvie’s Love” course-corrects too hard in the other direction, as much of the film’s squibbly second half feels like the story is kicking its tires in order to buy time for the inevitable. The question is never if Robert and Sylvie are meant to be together, but rather how they might be able to make it work. And the biggest hindrance to that shared happiness isn’t any kind of social tension, or the changing sound of the music industry, or even Sylvie’s family — it’s success.

The world offers itself to Sylvie so readily that even life’s hardest punches are wrapped in velvet, and the few instances of explicit (yet casual) racism she encounters are spun to her advantage. That these characters are clawing misery from the jaws of happiness rather than the other way around offers a potentially fascinating wrinkle to a gooey melodrama that doesn’t want to overindulge in the good stuff. But Ashe’s film gets a bit too flat for the big finale to arrive with the oomph that it should. And yet, as out of sync as you might get with the way that “Sylvie’s Love” riffs on its themes, you never want Ashe and his band to stop playing.

Grade: B

“Sylvie’s Love” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on Wednesday, December 23.

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