“Sylvie’s Love” is a reminder that many people watch movies just to see pretty people fall in love. Nothing wrong with that, but in the history of the American cinema, almost all of those lovers have been white. With his second feature, arriving this week as an Amazon Original, writer-director Eugene Ashe goes back in time to address the issue. A stylish and mostly satisfying romantic drama set in late 1950s/early 1960s Manhattan, “Sylvie’s Love” benefits from two charismatic leads and only lacks in the originality department. But sometimes originality is overrated.
Tessa Thompson (“Creed,” “Sorry To Bother You”), who also executive produced, stars as the title character, a young Harlemite who helps her father (Lance Reddick) run a neighborhood record store and dreams of a downtown career as a TV producer while waiting for her fiancé (Alano Miller) to come back from Korea. An impoverished but talented tenor sax player named Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) gets a part-time job at the store, and between discussions of Monk, Sam Cooke, and Bill Haley and the Comets, the two fall hard for each other.
There are complications, and about halfway through, “Sylvie’s Love” jumps ahead five years, when Sylvie is married but the relationship with Robert picks up anew, and it follows through several more ups and downs — more than the movie’s weight can hold at nearly two hours. Yet even if Thompson, at 37, has at least a decade on the character she’s playing, the film is a constant pleasure to experience, with rich wide-screen visuals that recall the era’s Technicolor splendors, pitch-perfect costumes (Phoenix Mellow was the designer), and a soundtrack of period ear candy that uses the Drifters’ “Fools Fall in Love” as a keynote while branching off into Nancy Wilson, Jackie Wilson, Doris Day, Bill Evans, and much more.
“Sylvie’s Love” is as notable for what’s left out as for what’s put in. There are references to the civil rights struggles in the South — Sylvie’s best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King), is active with the Freedom Riders — and to the New York business world’s racism, but Ashe’s screenplay keeps the era’s harsher realities at bay while serving up a vision of Black success that, for the time period, is soothingly aspirational. Sylvie gets that job in TV production and works hard at balancing work and home; her husband forges ahead in the financial industry and is willing to accept a token’s promotion if it will get him places. This doesn’t make him a villain, only human, and not the right match for his more ethically grounded wife.
The parallel storyline of Robert’s journey through the music business — coming up through the Blue Note/Birdland circuit and playing Paris club dates just as rock ‘n’ roll is taking over the charts — is knowingly painted, but eventually “Sylvie’s Love” throws in one or two complications too many, and all the style in the world can’t keep the movie from running low on gas in the final leg. Director Ashe has accomplished something strange and charming, though: He has made a movie that could have come out in 1962 in look and feel and narrative — everything except the color of the characters. This is more than retro, it’s a re-imagination of the past, of the stories and role models that could have been available to Black audiences (and white ones) but weren’t. Better late than never.
Written and directed by Eugene Ashe. Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha. Available on Amazon. 114 minutes. PG-13 (some sexual content, smoking)