Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance ’20: Sylvie’s Love

Nobody ever said loving a jazz musician was easy. Sylvie Johnson can tell you about that. They are always on the road and they never get paid what their talents deserve, but they feel things very deeply. Johnson cannot help loving tenor titan Robert Holloway, but the world seems to conspire against their romance in Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Johnson is the daughter of a prominent Harlem family. If truth be told, her mother the etiquette teacher is the prominent one, rather than her father, “Mr. Jay,” a former musician and owner of a hip record store. That is where Holloway first met her. He went in looking for the latest Monk record, Brilliant Corners (the Fantasy/Riverside/Contemporary catalog of labels get prime placement in the film), but he applies for a part-time position to woo Johnson. Rather inconveniently, she is engaged to the proper sort of man her mother approves of, but their mutual attraction is undeniable.

Somehow, despite the passion, they just don’t end up together in 1957. The pattern will repeat when they cross paths again in 1962. He is still a sideman in the Dickie Brewster Quartet. The band is having some success, but it is mainly the less talented leader who is benefiting. To a great extent, this is because he is sleeping with their manager, who is rather transparently and unfairly based on the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. He also owns all the publishing rights for the group’s tunes.

By this time, Johnson has married her respectable fiancé and they have a little girl they both adore, but her heart still belongs to Holloway. Her only real satisfaction comes from her work as a TV production assistant for a large New York affiliate, until Holloway reappears again (and again).

This is a wonderfully lush period production that perfectly captures the look and texture of an era when Howard Johnson’s was a Times Square landmark. It also gets the jazz right, starting with the lovely Nancy Wilson standard playing over the opening credits (if this film gets distributed relatively widely, it could very well put Wilson back on the charts). Even the jazz dialogue, especially Holloway and Johnson’s shop talk, sounds legit for the times. The original music composed by Fabrice Lecomte also sounds era-appropriate and swings quite nicely. You can definitely say the Brewster band can play, since their musical parts are supplied by musicians like Mark Turner on tenor and Uri Caine on piano.

The music is terrific, but the drama can get a little manipulative at times. Frankly, the contrivances keeping the two lovers are often clumsily forced. Be that as it may, Nnamdi Asomugha rises above it as the cool-on-the-outside, blue-and-sentimental-on-the-inside Holloway. He carries himself like a musician on the bandstand and slow burns with passion and pride when he is off. He also develops some deeply soulful chemistry with Tessa Thompson’s Johnson.

She plays the titular lead with resolution and restraint. Yet, Aja Naomi King steals multiple scenes from Thompson portraying Mona “Lisa,” Johnson’s flighty bestie-turned dedicated Civil Rights activist. Ironically, Eva Longoria is probably the biggest name attached to the film, but her role (Brewster’s wife Carmen) is inconsequential.

It is so refreshing to see a jazz drama that understands the music and takes it seriously. Granted, the complete absence of drug abuse issues stretches credibility, given the widely documented use of heroin among musicians at this time, but if there is one jazz cliché we can skip, that would be it. The film looks great, thanks to Declan Quinn’s warm, retro-looking cinematography and it sounds great thanks to the music, both original and licensed. Highly recommended for fans of period indie dramas and very highly recommended for jazz fans, Sylvie’s Love screens again tomorrow (1/30) and Friday (1/31) in Park City and Saturday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.