The love affair between music — jazz in particular — and romance on the screen is a story that is often told (from 1961’s Paris Blues to 2020’s The Eddy). Writer/director Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love looks to add to the canon with its sensitive look at the true cost of love.
Set in Harlem in the 1950s, Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) is a young woman working in her father’s record store with dreams of becoming a television producer — a job unheard of for a Black woman at the time. When in walks a young jazz saxophonist, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) into her store and her life. He is captivated by her passion and knowledge of music (a gift she got from her father, who used to be a musician in his own right) and is immediately smitten. This is a film about a summer romance that overcomes obstacles to bloom into so much more. Sylvie is engaged to a young man from a well-off Black family currently fighting in the Korean War. Her mother, who runs an etiquette finishing school, is all about appearances and making sure that Sylvie is well-yoked with some in her social class or higher, which could create a problem for the struggling musician Robert.
The film does a wonderful job of showing the timeline of their romance while opening at the end, going back to the beginning, and then back to where the film opened because their love affair wasn’t continuous — there was a five-year pause where they were both pulled into opposite directions. The opening sequence of the film seems right out of archival footage with the smooth jazz intro. As we go back to the beginning of their summer romance, Sylvie and Robert try their best to keep things platonic as Sylvie is already spoken for.
The two seem like complete opposites with Sylvie’s head-in-the-clouds but ambitious attitude and Robert’s more reserved yet forward nature. It’s also a “from the different side of the tracks” type love story with Sylvie’s meddling mother not wanting Sylvie to “marry beneath her station.” But even when life gets in the way and Paris and careers beckon, their feelings bind them.
But this story, although a touching ode to Black love, is so much more than that. While it is refreshing to see a Black period piece that is not depressing and all about race pain, this film does touch on gender roles and issues during this time period. And although the race issue is not overtly in your face, it is always in the background. But the gender issues are more apparent in the film as Sylvie has to contend with being the perfect housewife/mother and going after her career dreams, with her husband at one point saying, “You can work as long as it doesn’t interfere with your responsibilities at home,” and he expects her to give up her career once things take off for him. What his wife wants is irrelevant. There is also the issue of having a child out of wedlock, coupled with the societal constraints and naiveté of the 1950s.
Sylvie’s Love is a beautiful ode to sacrificing everything for love. The price of true love is high. It’s also an ode to doing whatever it takes to achieve your dreams, but also being realistic and adjusting to the changing times. It is a musical delight that has the smoothness of a jazz album come to life. The music, set design, and costuming really work in tandem to transport you back in time. Tessa Thompson delivers a strong performance as the independent Sylvie, and she definitely holds every scene she is in, sometimes overshadowing the more subtle performance of Asomugha. There are also a few familiar faces that steal the scenes they are in as well. There’s Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder), who so embodies the role of Sylvie’s more free-spirited, outspoken cousin Mona. Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911), John Magaro (First Cow), comedian Ron Funches, Eva Longoria, and Jemima Kirke (Girls) make memorable appearances as well. In the end, this subtly beautiful film hits all the right notes in this extraordinary love story.