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Call me nerdy or OCD, but I get aggravated at movies that botch locations imprinted in my DNA. As an example, it’s a dealbreaker when a film set in downtown Manhattan, where I grew up, shows traffic on Third Street running east when it should go west, brings the A-train to the wrong subway station, or (as in Moonstruck) transplants the Grand Ticino, a wonderful Italian restaurant that had an 80-year run on Thompson Street, to Brooklyn.
Similarly, when I’m intimate with a film’s subject, particularly if that subject is jazz, blatant implausibilities within the narrative trigger my censorious inner pedagogue.
Consider Sylvie’s Love (Amazon Prime), the recipient of much mainstream media praise for featuring two Black protagonists in an old-school Hollywood romantic melodrama (think Breakfast at Tiffany’s) executed with stylistic and cinematographic flair — enticing sets and costumes that evoke the period in question within a mise en scene reminiscent of Douglas Sirk’s end-of-the-50s Technicolor extravaganzas. Its admirers include jazz cognoscenti, enticed by director Eugene Ashe’s portrayal of the milieu inhabited by the male lead, a talented jazz tenor saxophonist, between 1957 and 1964.
The jazz details are spot-on in the opening scenes in Harlem, when sparks ignite between Bobby Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Sylvie Parker (Tessa Thompson) after Bobby enters her father’s Harlem record shop to buy Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners album (a new release in mid-1957), featuring Sonny Rollins, his idol. Sylvie works beyond the counter, killing time while her fiancé, a scion of an elite Harlem family, completes his military service. Holloway is even more intrigued when Sylvie throws in Rollins’ just-released Way Out West (a now-iconic trio session with Ray Brown and Shelley Manne). He persuades the father — an ex-saxophonist — to hire him. (In a nice touch, Dad confides to Holloway that he once played a Conn New Wonder model; Holloway reveals that he plays a Selmer, Super Balanced Action.)
All well and good...but then verisimilitude gives way to alternate reality. Originally from Detroit, Holloway has been working on a six-month gig at a Bronx jazz club with pianist Duke Brewster, who compensates for modest talent with advanced social skills. In the house one night is a well-connected, jazz-obsessed countess with a British accent, who praises Holloway as potentially the next step after John Coltrane.
In real life, this compliment would be a year — or two — premature: midway through 1957, Coltrane was about to begin a career-resurrecting sideman gig with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot after being fired by Miles Davis earlier in the year. Also, the notes and tones don’t merit the comparison. Holloway’s smoldering solos, played by Mark Turner, are terrific, and Asomugha (who spent a year learning to play saxophone – and also learning Fabrice Lecomte’s neo-boppish tunes – under the ministrations of Poncho Williams) looks convincing. But there’s nothing pathbreaking or futuristic about the lines Turner plays, which reference neither Coltrane’s nor Rollins’ respective vocabularies. To these ears, a more apt comparison would be Turner’s own lodestar figure, Warne Marsh, crossed with Hank Mobley or, perhaps, French tenorist Barney Wilen.
Soon thereafter, Sylvie accepts Holloway’s invitation to hear him at the club. As he walks her home (without his saxophone or case – unthinkable), she reiterates the next-step-after-Coltrane trope. Their romance blossoms, against the wishes of Sylvie’s snobbish mother, who runs a Harlem etiquette school. Sylvie gets pregnant; she doesn’t tell him. Meanwhile, the countess, now managing the band, gets them a lucrative, long-run engagement in France. Holloway asks Sylvie to join him. Sylvie declines. When she says goodbye, she tells Holloway that he has the potential to be as great as “John William Coltrane.”
[caption id="attachment_36297" align="alignleft" width="1024"] A screen still from 'Sylvie's Love,' available now on Amazon Prime Video.[/caption]
Five years pass. Sylvie keeps the baby and marries the fiancé, who adores her and nobly accepts the responsibility of raising another man’s daughter. She’s hired as assistant producer of a popular cooking show. After she’s promoted to producer, a Black female “first” circa 1962-63, her commitment to the job fosters spousal resentment.
Meanwhile, Holloway remains a moderately well-paid sideman with Brewster, now an international figure with – thanks to the countess – a major-label recording contract. Passing Town Hall on a trip to New York, he views the poster for that evening’s Nancy Wilson-Cannonball Adderley concert. Sylvie is in the lobby and spots him on the sidewalk; she has an extra ticket and invites him to join her. The romance rekindles. Sylvie leaves her husband. After a while, she and Holloway are cohabiting. They’re a well-matched couple, each respecting the other’s autonomy – refreshingly, the music isn’t the third party in a cliche love triangle.
Holloway, who’s been writing all along for Brewster’s band, decides it’s time to break out as a leader. He brings a pile of tunes to Brewster’s producer, who had promised to record him when he was ready. The producer refuses even to listen to them, stating that jazz is no longer “cool” – a rationale more apropos to 1965 or 1966 (after the British Invasion) than to 1963. Rather than approach a boutique independent label like Blue Note or Prestige or Impulse! (Riverside was then on its last legs), as you’d expect a musician of his stature and savoir-faire to do, Holloway drives to Detroit to claim a position in the Motown band that an old acquaintance guaranteed was his for the asking. He should have called first; the offer was a chimera. Implausibly, Holloway self-punishes for the compounded disappointments by pulling the plug on his aspirations. He parts from Sylvie, and takes a union job at the GM plant.
There is, however, a happy ending, and Cecile McLorin Salvant sings the closing theme in French.
I experienced Sylvie’s Love as an improbable story, one step up from a Lifetime soap opera. But opinions expressed by viewers on my social media feeds indicate that mine is a minority opinion. A female singer-educator I respect called it “a great romance story with a powerful...cast” on Facebook. She received enthusiastic cosignatures from numerous respondents of both genders, who appreciate not only the chemistry between the Black leads, but the fact that, as one reviewer put it, they are “virtually untethered to racial trauma,” navigating a space that BIPOC people have had scant access to in American cinema.
The impact of racial trauma and white exploitation is core to celebrity theater director George C. Wolfe’s interpretation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix), in which a Black musician of similar talents and ambition reacts more explosively to a white gatekeeper’s dashing of his high hopes. The film itself is enthralling: the cast nails both the solo flight recitatives and the ensembles; the mise en scene – production values, sets, costumes – impeccably frames the volcanic narrative; Branford Marsalis’ music conjures the 1920s; Wilson’s script (adapted and trimmed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) is demotic and lyric. Viola Davis shamanistically inhabits the Mother of the Blues; Glynn Turman is marvelous as Toledo, the free-thinking, quasi-Garveyite pianist; Colman Domingo evokes the realpolitik pragmatism of the Bible-quoting trombonist Cutler.
Trumpet players tell me that the late Chadwick Boseman fingers the valves with too much extravagance, but that’s my only qualm with his charismatic portrayal of Levee. This being said, Boseman’s Levee is way too resourceful, way too much a survivor for his implosion at the end to feel fully credible. While touring with Ma Rainey, Levee would have run into numerous traveling musicians in the territory bands – Alonzo Trent, Bennie Moten, maybe even the family band led by Lester Young’s father. It’s summer 1927 in Chicago, and there’s work everywhere for Black musicians on the South Side. Bands are constantly passing through. Locals like Erskine Tate, Doc Cooke, and Carroll Dickerson are leading first-class Black theater orchestras. It’s home base for Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Jimmie Noone, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, Teddy Weatherford, Omer Simeon, Freddie Keppard, et. al. A hot trumpet practitioner like Levee could easily have found a gig that very night, and he would be well aware of this.
[caption id="attachment_36301" align="alignleft" width="720"] Viola Davis (foreground) as Ma Rainey, Chadwick Boseman (background, left) and Colman Domingo in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.[/caption]
Now, Ma Rainey’s subtext is the intersection of race, class and gender during the era in question, and informed observers posit the impact of that matrix of forces on Levee’s consciousness as a context for his PTSD-like response to the rejections he suffers in the oppressively hot recording studio where the play transpires. Fair enough. But I read the denouement as privileging Wilson's allegorical imperatives over the inner truths that seem to animate this extraordinarily vivid character. I haven’t viewed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on stage, and can’t compare Boseman’s Levee to the great Charles Dutton’s two portrayals on Broadway. I don’t know in what ways (if at all) Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation alters Wilson’s intentions. Wolfe has displayed a penchant for “getting house” theatrically at the expense of emotional or historical credibility in past productions like Jelly’s Last Jam.
Whatever the case, executive producer Denzel Washington deserves our gratitude for his determination to film the entirety of Wilson’s epic ten-play cycle, enabling a mass audience to interpret, interrogate, and critique the master’s oeuvre.