Robert: “Life’s too short to waste time on things you don’t absolutely love.”
Sylvie: “But how do you know if you love something absolutely?”
Robert: “I guess when it’s the only thing that matters.”
Eugene Ashe’s “Sylvie’s Love” (2020) is the most romantic movie I’ve seen all year. Scratch that. It’s one of the most romantic movies I’ve seen in a very long time. It envelops you in this swooning feeling from the moment it starts. By now you’ve heard me admit how certain scenes are able to get me emotive. Well, “Sylvie’s Love” does it throughout. You bask in its glow for its entire running time – and long after its credits roll. It has this classic feel of Hollywood romances of the 50s and 60s, but the radical part of it is that its leads are African American. It feels so fresh and liberating because of that. Imagine an old-fashioned romance in the vein of “An Affair to Remember” or “The Way We Were,” but with Black protagonists. It’s an aesthetically gorgeous – nostalgic and lush – film.
It’s available today on Amazon Prime, and this is the perfect time of year to get lost in this sumptuous production. I recently spoke with director Ashe about his approach to the story, and he mentioned coming across photographs of his parents and being fascinated with the way they looked in the 1960s – their clothing reminding him of “Mad Men.” Being a big fan of studio movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and such, he realized that he’d never seen a film that had Black folks in that period that wasn’t about the Civil Rights movement. “With something like ‘Selma’ – those movies and stories need to be told,” he mentioned. “but I just wanted to do something that didn’t focus on our adversity, but focused on our humanity.”
In a glorious recreation of New York, we meet our characters in the hot summer of 1957. Sylvie dreams of a career in television but never imagines there’s room for a Black woman in it. She spends most days helping his dad with his record store, and she’s well versed on music – in particular jazz. She’s also engaged to a rich fiancé and is waiting for his return from serving in Korea. In walks Robert, a promising saxophonist looking for a Thelonious Monk record. Sparks fly but these two star-crossed lovers are pulled in different directions by circumstances and career choices.
I cannot recall a more powerful, combustible pairing in recent memory than Tessa Thompson as Sylvie and Nnamdi Asomugha as Robert. There’s a lovely scene in which you actually witness the moment in which they fall in love with each other. In a richly harmonious move, director Ashe puts them on the basement stairs having a cigarette – and you hear the sounds of the street outside as the two of them converse, listen to each other and fall in love. It’s such a tender moment – in a generous film full of them. Soon after is another instance – when Robert and Sylvie dance in the middle of a Manhattan street – that leaves you moonstruck.
The movie is unabashedly about love – and without any cynicism. It’s a throwback – and in this year where we’ve been battered around emotionally – Ashe’s style is greatly welcomed. The script, also written by the director, is terrific and full of powerful scenes like the ones I just described and with memorable lines. “I need to be the woman of my dreams, not just yours,” says Sylvie. There are micro-aggressions and modern topics that are addressed – like the empowerment of women and voting rights. But love is the driving force.
A former musician, Ashe bathes his entire film with music – a stunning soundtrack of songs ranging from Nancy Wilson to Doris Day (he dedicates the film to them as well as actress Diahann Carrol – who all died in 2019 while the film was in production). He also enlists composer Fabrice Lecomte to do a score that is as melodic and rich as anything Michel Legrand did. He also composed original bebop songs for the jazz quartet that Robert is a part of – and the theme song – entitled “B.-Loved” – is an instant classic. The cinematography by Declan Quinn is pure magic and the costumes by Phoenix Mellow are absolutely mouthwatering. There are three outfits that are vintage Chanel borrowed for the film – that make Ms. Thompson a cinematic rival to Audrey Hepburn.
This film is a gift for the seasons.
Mona: “Most people don’t ever find that kind of love – not even for the summer.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Written and Directed by Eugene Ashe
Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Aja Naomi King and Eva Longoria
Writer and Director Eugene Ashe on the Influences of Nancy Wilson and Gordon Parks in “Sylvie’s Love”
From character to overall cinematic mood, music had a major influence on the direction “Sylvie’s Love” would go. Asomugha’s character, Robert, part of a jazz quartet, stemmed from the dynamic Ashe had with the members of the ’90s R&B group he was in, Funky Poets. But it was the work of the singer Nancy Wilson that was highly influential. Ashe was born and raised in New York, and two records that he grew up listening to were “The Swingin’s Mutual” with the George Shearing Quintet and “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley.” He said he would add certain songs into the screenplay, like “The Nearness of You,” and his writing would be guided by them. “I looked at the cover of Nancy Wilson albums and they looked like how Sylvie looked in my mind,” he said. One standout is the cover for “Hollywood — My Way,” with Wilson standing on Hollywood Boulevard, bathed in the glow of city lights. He showed it to his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, and his chief lighting technician, Christian Epps, and told them, “That’s the light we’re going for.” Images like that brought a sense of nostalgia to Ashe, because they showcased a kind of “crispness to the night,” he said. “There’s a crackle when people are dressed up to see a show and holding a clutch and have perfume on,” he added. “I remember my parents getting dressed up to do that and thinking, I want to go where they’re going because they smell great and look great.”
Photography was significant to how Ashe wanted to capture the movie’s spirit. “I have a lot of old family photos of Black folks who look how Sylvie looks,” he said, “but it was always interesting to me that I never saw them depicted in film like that.” Beyond his own family photos, he was drawn to the images of professional photographers of the time like Saul Leiter and specifically Gordon Parks, whose work was most recently paid respects on the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” An image that has stayed with Ashe is Parks’s 1956 photograph “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama,” depicting a woman and child under a sign that says “Colored Entrance.” “When I first met with Tessa,” he said, “I had that picture on my iPad and showed it to her. It had the whole picture with the colored entrance sign. I said to her, ‘We’ve seen this movie. I want to make this movie,’ and I zoomed in to where the sign was gone and it only focused on the woman and her child. We talked about making a movie that wasn’t framed through our adversity, but that focused on our humanity.” (nytimes.com)
Tessa Thompson on “Sylvie’s Love”
“What is not done much is to center our joy, to center to our beauty, to center to our elegance,” said Thompson, who was accompanied by Ashe and Asomugha at Deadline’s Sundance Studio. In film history and film iconography, there’s a rich precedent for love stories that span generations, films like The Way We Were. But they’re pretty exclusive of black and Brown people,” she continued. “The idea of getting to, in a way, make a film that feels sort of like a throwback to that time, that feels revisionist in a way, it’s like, ‘what if it was okay in that time and in place to make films like those films that center us and center us in a time when yes, there was strife that had to do with race and gender, as there still is, but what you get to see these characters struggle with is the interpersonal strife of just trying to love and be alive.” “None of us would be here if people weren’t falling in love, if black folks weren’t falling in love in the 60s, said Ashe. “I can’t even really think of a period piece where it’s not filtered through the lens of our adversity. This isn’t about that. This is 1962. There is certainly the civil rights movement happening, but it’s really about the love story between these two people.” (deadline.com)
Nnamdi Asomugha on “Sylvie’s Love”
“…With ‘Sylvie’s Love,’ when I read the script I was blown away because the story was so beautiful. It’s set in the Civil Rights era, but it isn’t about Bull Connor and water hoses, it’s about people falling in love. How many times does that happen with people that look like me at the center?…I had just done ‘Good Grief’ off-Broadway and felt like I was really becoming an actor — Oh, I’ve done theater, the craziest mental and physical exercise you can go through — so this felt like the next stage. But it’s not the lane I traffic in, so it was all new to me. I have a lot of nerves about everything I do before I start the process of preparing. My favorite part of the entire process is that moment where you go from being scared to being confident. There wasn’t a week in football where I started off confident, but most weeks right before the game I felt like the most confident player in the NFL — that all happened because of a five-day period of studying and training. It’s something I’ve brought to acting. When I start projects, I don’t know what’s going to happen and wonder, “Am I kidding myself.” I do research and physical work — how this person sits, stands, walks, speaks and breathes — then the character starts developing. Then a lot of those nerves fall away. I’m not a quick learner but when I get through the process and it clicks I’m very confident.
…I did not walk into ‘Sylvie’s Love’ saying, “I’ve arrived.” When you have a trauma during the nascent stages of doing anything, it leaves indelible prints for the rest of your life. I’ve had those moments as an actor where people would say, ‘This guy is a football player so we won’t even bring him in to read.’ They’d laugh about it. People think football players can’t tap into the emotional vulnerability of real characters. I’ve heard it so often that I don’t think it’s ever going to leave me. It fuels me. I’ll always go into a project with a chip on my shoulder because there isn’t much expected from me. I wanted ‘Crown Heights’ partly because I wanted to do roles that are the exact opposite of a football player so people would see I could act. With ‘Sylvie’s Love,’ we discussed exploring hyper-masculinity and black male vulnerability and it’s important for me because people would say it’s not possible for a football player to show vulnerability. They’d say, “He’s going to be a stone wall and there won’t be a moment of truth.” So I still choose roles where I can continue to show that’s not true.” (ocregister.com)
Costume Designer Phoenix Mellow on “Sylvie’s Love”
“I’m very immersive in costume design and make sure everything is very authentic, including all the undergarments. But even in the fitting room, we were playing jazz and soul music, to just get us into that [space]. I remember Nnamdi would come in with his sax and start playing. It just felt like the music was so much a part of it, and Eugene would share what he was thinking about for a scene. He was really thinking about the music right from the beginning when we met, and he really inspired us to use that in the characters…Working with the actors and finding their character is so important to me. I really think that starts with the costume. It’s what their character was thinking in the morning when they picked it out. A lot of their psychology is subconsciously told in the costumes. I like to read how the actor is feeling, and I like to share all my inspiration and my mood boards and all the research I’ve been doing, and then talk to them about how they want to portray the character. In the costume fitting, we really find those pieces are how the character comes alive, and you can just see it click, when all of a sudden they have that piece. It’s that color, and all of a sudden, it clicks. I’m very Method in my costume designing.
For [‘Sylvie’s Love’], I started with the authentic undergarments and built the body like a structure or like a sculpture. Tessa very much is [Method], too, making sure we had the right undergarments and the girdle—it just gives you a different posture. Also, the fit of the clothes helps. At first, [when] I fit Nnamdi—he’s very, very tall. You give him a pleated pant, this big, baggy pant, and he’s confused. But then all of a sudden, that just gives you a different walk. You just understand that you come from a different time period through the costumes…It’s all in the details, from the color that they choose to the outfit that they wear. It really goes with the psychology of: What is the era? How much money does this character make? Where are they shopping? Do they get it tailored? Are they a mother? Are they a musician? Are they a performer? There are so many questions that go into it that you don’t think about when you’re dressing yourself in the morning—but I’m thinking about it for this person. I am working as a collaborator with the actor and the script to get the perfect pieces and all the details that make them feel complete. I’m also thinking about what the actors have to perform in the script, and to make sure the clothes are going to be comfortable and also work properly.” (backstage.com)
Cinematographer Declan Quinn on “Sylvie’s Love”
“We were quick to choose Super 16 film for ‘Sylvie’s Love.’ Eugene wanted the film to be reminiscent of the romantic musical stories from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s- films like ‘Paris Blues,’ ‘Pal Joey,’ ‘Sparkle’ and ‘Mahogany.’ 16mm film grain and the inherent softness that a smaller negative delivers worked to bring the nostalgic feel we wanted for this film. We did not need to further diffuse the image with optics so we chose the crisp Zeiss Ultra Primes which were designed for Super 16. On testing film stocks we quickly learned that the 500T was too grainy for us, so we shot using the 200T and 50T. This pushed us into using more direct light than we would have been accustomed to. The gaffer, Christian Epps and myself used a soft/hard lighting approach that evoked the hard light feel of the early 60’s films but we also kept a softer natural feel to the light when needed. Consistent with older movies, apart from the nightclub scenes, we did not use much color on our lights. It was Mayne Berke’s production design and Phoenix Mellow’s costumes that brought the colors and textures to the screen. The lighting remained relatively neutral.” (jbprodinc.com)
About Writer and Director Eugene Ashe
Eugene began his entertainment career as a recording artist on Sony Music’s Epic/550 label, as part of the R&B band Funky Poets, amassing three Billboard charted singles, and a platinum record from the Free Willy Soundtrack. Eugene soon turned his attention to writing music for television and film, co-writing the score to Tom Fontana’s CBS Pilot “Firehouse,” which had an all-star cast that included Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”), and contributed music to the critically acclaimed HBO series “OZ.” Eugene’s first screenplay, “The Draft Dodger,” was developed during his fellowship at the Writer’s Guild Lab at Columbia University Graduate School. Eugene’s first feature film, “Homecoming,” was adapted from his 2010 off-Broadway play, and was released and distributed by RLJ/IMAGE Entertainment (owned by BET founder Robert Johnson) in 2012. Eugene’s next film, “Sylvie’s Love,” starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha is a perfect marriage between his love of music and film. The film is in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (sevenletterwordfilms.com)