The Morning Call (Sunday)
‘Sylvie’s Love’ finds romance in the backlots
Style of throwback drama shaped by switch in location
A blue gown, a chance encounter, a flame that won’t ever truly dim — these are some of the building blocks of “Sylvie’s Love,” a romantic drama set in the late 1950s to early 1960s about a young couple who fall in love, though it is never the right time for them to truly be together.
Tessa Thompson stars as Sylvie, a young woman who works in her father’s record store but dreams of being a television producer. Into the shop one day comes Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a rising jazz saxophone player who feels an immediate connection to Sylvie. Shot with the jewel tones reminiscent of classic Technicolor and staged in part on Hollywood studio backlots, “Sylvie’s Love” looks like a throwback to an earlier era, but by placing a Black couple at its center, it depicts the romantic passions and interior lives of characters that would typically have been pushed to the edges of the story back in the day.
The project was always rooted in the romantic travails of two young Black lives. But in the time since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 — it is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — not only has the world been changed by a pandemic but it has also seen an increased consciousness around racial justice in America. Both those events only strengthen what the movie was already trying to accomplish.
“The thing with period pieces for me is the ones that are most effective are the ones that do speak to the moment that we’re in. And you can’t really prepare for that,” said writer-director Eugene Ashe. “We just made the movie we wanted to make, and then it just kind of turned into this whole other thing because of the time we’re in.”
For Asomugha, who spent 11 seasons as a cornerback in the NFL, the storyline of how his character had to transition from leading a jazz group to playing as a session musician for Motown, rolling with the times and career changes, was personally resonant.
Having come to “Sylvie’s Love” as an actor, Asomugha eventually got involved as a producer as well.
“The goal was to bring the type of film that our parents never got to see,” he said, “in terms of the characters looking like them and being in a glorious period and just being able to laugh and dance without worrying about all of the societal issues that were going on.
“But since 2020, the meaning of this film now — I don’t want to say it’s changed completely, but it’s enhanced.”
Thompson has become a very in-demand actress, including roles in the television series “Westworld” and the upcoming film “Thor: Love and Thunder.” “Sylvie’s Love” was originally set to be shot in late spring 2019 in New York City and upstate, but things had to be moved up because of her schedule. The East Coast in February wasn’t going to provide quite the same setting, so the decision was made to shoot in Los Angeles, finding locations and using studio backlots to stand in for New York.
“It just turned out to enhance the experience so much,” said Asomugha. “Wewere no longer making this small, independent film of these two people falling in love. Wewere now making a big, epic Hollywood throwback. And it initially wasn’t going to be that, but we stumbled into a really beautiful ending.”
Although Ashe had originally envisioned “Sylvie’s Love” as having the feel of more recent period films such as “Carol” or “ASingle Man,” he realized the shift to filming in LAwould change his references as well, to classics such as “Lover Come Back” or “That Touch of Mink.” “Paris Blues” had already been a point of reference, along with romances such as “The Way We Were.” Asomugha also noted how he modeled certain aspects of his performance after those of Montgomery Clift in “APlace in the Sun.”
“Long story short, I just leaned into the idea,” Ashe said of the backlot locales.
To create the film’s look, Ashe collaborated with cinematographer Declan Quinn, shooting on Super-16 mm, along with production designer Mayne Berke and costume designer Phoenix Mellow.
Berke had experienced shooting in Los Angeles for NewYork before.
Re-creating the period look provided its challenges, from finding just the right rooftop to building sets from the ground up, such as the television studio where Sylvie eventually works or her suburban home.
According to Mellow, the costumes in the film ended up being about 80% vintage, 10% modern standing in for vintage and 10% custom.
It was a challenge finding vintage suits for Asomugha, who stands well over 6 feet and has a modern athlete’s build, so his costumes either needed to be made or drastically reworked.
Thompson had more than 50 costume changes. Afew of the gowns she wore in the film were lent to the production from the archives of Chanel.
“Sylvie’s Love” manages to accomplish a lot: Not only is it a beautiful, glamorous throwback, but it’s also a charged reinvigoration of the screen romance because of who is being depicted as falling in love, having problems, living their lives.
“One way in cinema history of erasing Black humanity is to only show it through a really narrow lens,” said Thompson. “If it exists in a time when there was struggle and strife politically and societally, then we don’t get to focus at all on the sort of personal things that happen to characters and to our protagonists.”
As much as anything else, the movie’s gentleness, earnestness and vulnerability connect it to another time.
“I miss love stories,” said
Ashe. “I miss dramatic, romantic movies, not just rom-coms. And I love rom-coms, but at the same time, there are not a lot of love stories like those old classic ones.”
Through it all, the movie has a delightful, gorgeous sense of style, as its two beautiful stars make their way through a world of rain-slicked streets, finely tailored clothes and heightened emotions. Using the still-extant backlots of Hollywood’s historic studios, “Sylvie’s Love” looks to create images that were rarely seen in Hollywood’s classic era.
“Wemadeno attempt to go overboard with the fact that we were on a backlot. We let the backlots speak for themselves,” said Berke. “You add a wet-down, some jazz music and a couple dancing, and you’ve got romance.”