Before it became Childish Gambino material and an Arcade Fire music video, Black Orpheus was a pretty good movie. The 1959 Brazilian drama was a re-interpretation of the Greek tragedy imbued with enough imagination to not simply be a blacker Orpheus. Marcel Camus’ version retains the mythical elements, but the film excels in how it makes the culture it’s situated within feel fantastical. Take a look at the carnival scene; there’s nary any editing embellishments or glamor shots. The vibrance is civilian, emanating from the sweat-soaked black bodies and the wide smiles brightening the night alongside the bulbs. Ecstasy is that child in the half-buttoned yellow shirt smacking that tambourine against his body, barely giving a shit if he’s on beat.
One could imagine that Donald Glover and the gang were trying to evoke this high during Guava Island’s climax, where Glover’s hero Deni is defiantly performing at a festival against the town tyrant’s wishes. He’s singing in front of a crowd dancing under lights arranged not too dissimilarly to that of Black Orpheus. But the whole sequence feels, well, staged. The swaying hips, brass, and local garments are fitted to serve Gambino’s wild-eyed, chest-hair-flaunting presence. It’s simply Glover in new clothes.
Like Jordan Peele, Donald Glover has survived entertainment industry indignities (Chevy Chase belittling Glover, Peele being forced to stay with MadTV under contract) to become a widely respected auteur. His genius has translated more potently in the visual arts: Part of what made “This Is America”’s Grammy wins for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year so peculiar (other than it being the first rap song to take home those awards) is how the song doesn’t stand up quite as well without its arresting video. His musical output has been less distinct. Childish Gambino’s most recent album, “Awaken, My Love!”, is a P-Funk redux, while the more recent single “Feels Like Summer” gives Coachella pop a shot. They’re both far more palatable than Camp’s incel anthems, but after Glover debuted his award-winning series Atlanta in 2016, you’ve come to hope for all-around excellence from Teddy Perkins.
Shot in Cuba last summer, the Hiro Murai-directed Guava Island is a musical that wants to be a film, and it never finds any comfort in either of those identities. Glover and his on-screen girlfriend Rihanna have chemistry so wooden, I found myself asking if the characters would ever actually make out. That being said, the film will serve anyone eager to see Glover sing “Summertime Magic” to Rihanna on a beach.
The musical set pieces acquit themselves well enough: The factory-set rework of “This Is America,” which revs with machinery churns and peaks with Glover’s Bruce Lee-like squeals, is an easy highlight. Inherently, new Childish Gambino music also stands out. “Die With You” is a snug, warm number that falls in line with the Summer Pack EP’s escapism, and like his Grammy winner, bolstered by the beautifully animated sequence that opens the film. Fellow unreleased song “Time,” sung by a chorus of children throughout the romp, hints that our Childish Gambino has grown into a wistful man (“Maybe the sky will fall down on tomorrow/ But one thing’s for certain baby/ We’re running out of time”).
Obvious highlights aside, Guava Island barely strings itself together from one performance to the next. Murai’s deadpan eye captures the Cuban setting’s natural vibrance, but it often feels like a hollow aesthetic — never mind that the actors playing islanders can’t decide on one accent. Black Orpheus and Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2003 crime flick City Of God, another influence on Guava Island, made their Brazilian environment feel like a breathing organism, not just a backdrop. Gambino with Rihanna in Cuba is simply Gambino with Rihanna in Cuba, whatever that may mean to you.
Guava Island immediately hampers itself with outsized mythology. The story takes place in a fertile land whose resources have been taken over by the “Red Family,” who rule over a predominantly blue-wearing working class. One oppressor (played by a hulking Nonso Anozie) stands against Deni’s plans to hold a festival, believing it would stop worker productivity. Aside from being the bourgeoisie vs. proletariat Footloose for the festival generation, the concept feels awkwardly imprecise. It fits with Donald Glover’s anti-establishment persona but really isn’t attached to the Afro-Latinx diaspora it borrows from. As a result, Guava Island comes out feeling more indulgent than essential. If indulgence and Black Orpheus are your thing, Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” lyric video is 40 minutes shorter.
Guava Island is out now via Amazon.