Did New York ever look more itself than when it was a soundstage in California? In the Golden Age of Hollywood, every studio maintained lavish sets to stand in for Greenwich Village and Broadway. So it is with Sylvie’s Love, a gorgeous star-cross’d Manhattan romance filmed entirely on Los Angeles backlots. The whole movie is so tied up with the old-fashioned way of things you would have to call it pastiche. But be aware — a twist awaits.
The story unfolds in two moments. In 1962, the city hums with the energy of yellow cabs and Midtown concert halls. But the heart of the film is set five years earlier, sax player Robert wandering into the Harlem record store staffed by the owner’s daughter, Sylvie. He (Nnamdi Asomugha) is a scrappy rising star, she (Tessa Thompson) a prim pillar of middle-class young womanhood. The rest plays out almost exactly as it would have in the Hollywood of 1957, without a trace of 21st-century smirk or snark, romance smouldering across social stations. The vintage glow is uncanny. Director Eugene Ashe knows exactly how to conjure the past, a nocturnal dance staged on a street of plyboard brownstones.
In the era in which it is set, Sylvie’s Love would have been called a woman’s picture, the movie industry’s allotted space for female characters with inner lives. But only some female characters. Even in the hands of a subversive maestro like Douglas Sirk, the most visible a black woman got was in a film like Imitation of Life, a great movie but one with room only for the traumas of racial identity.
Ashe instead makes a fascinating Hollywood counterfactual — a film that supposes that the lush contours of a ’50s melodrama might have been available to black lives on the same straightforward terms as if they were white. The politics are inherent, as graceful as they are powerful.
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