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Guava Island review - Donald Glover and Rihanna find music in a restrictive tropical paradise


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There are few people more popular or, indeed, more talented at the moment than Donald Glover.

Image credit: Columbia Pictures

Brilliantly funny in Community, quietly disillusioned in Atlanta, and either an assertive rapper or a brilliantly funky soul singer under his pseudonym Childish Gambino – Glover can do it all, and all of it well. Debuting at Coachella last Thursday, the small film Guava Island embraces all these star qualities into a tropical musical-thriller with enjoyably colourful, and most importantly fun, results.

Glover plays Deni Maroon, a restless musician who's always on the move and often beaming a bright-white smile; Rihanna plays Kofi, his more cautiously-optimistic, witty girlfriend. They live on the titular Guava Island, a fictional tropical world tainted by Red Cargo’s far-reaching corporation, turning the place from a jungle paradise to an industrial workplace. Glimpses of escapism from this laborious labour-world are teased in moments of music and vibrant colour, or mentions of escaping to a better life. Deni hopes to bring the people more than a tease, by headlining a music festival one evening. However, Red Cargo – played quiet and menacing by Nonso Anozie – violently doesn’t want this disruption to his workforce.

It’s an interesting little set-up and one that encourages the themes of individuality and dreams that follow throughout the film. The idea of a musical-thriller is a brave one, being two disparate genres that, handled poorly, could diminish the impact of either. However, Guava Island’s breezy-rush of a one-hour runtime and endearing playfulness ensures that it works. The film is full of lively colour, with popping blues and crisp whites, all introduced in its cute animated opening.

Pitched somewhere between a Pink Panther credits sequence and a Jamaican piece of art, the opening cartoon establishes both the soulful music and the semi-slapstick movement that will come to define the movie; energetic movement channelled through Afro-Caribbean beats. These drawings continue into a prologue which explains the historical context of the island, narrated by Rihanna by way of a bedtime tale told to her as a child and allowing a sweet bookend arc at the end. This gives the island a pleasing sense of depth, later emphasised by little details of world-building – caged birds are dotted throughout, strange and unfamiliar to the locals, and a fitting metaphor for the inhabitants.

When the film does segue to live-action, little of the animated feel is lost. It’s presented in an aspect ratio and a colour palette reminiscent of tropical polaroids, much like a holiday. But this is no holiday - or at least not yet, as Glover tries to liberate if not the people themselves but their minds and souls, through music, for one night. This is the key part of the film – the music. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to admire around that. The moments of comedy are gently funny, mainly through Glover’s wild movements or humorous faces, and pitched just right and just frequently enough.

Image credit: Columbia Pictures

Director Hiro Murai has cut his teeth with Glover’s aforementioned show Atlanta, and translates well to a slightly longer form of film – and, with him, he takes his Atlanta cinematographer Christian Sprenger to craft frames that are bursting with colour and aesthetically minimalist. Some of the interiors are oddly reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s equally-colourful Zama from 2017, and both films use restrained, slight indoors and minimalistic landscapes. Action, too, is well-handled when it rarely rears its head, with frantic chases and controlled violence that are handled from just far-away enough that they don’t threaten to hurt the good-hearted tone.

But we’re here for the music, and unsurprisingly it delivers. Gambino fans clamouring for new music - after his funk masterpiece album Awaken, My Love! in 2016 - will be a little disheartened, however, as there isn’t a lot of new material to speak of. Besides the intro and outro’s beautiful, stripped-back Die With You and a small Red’s Cargo radio jingle, much of the music is the collection of sun-drenched hits that Gambino released last summer. It’s interesting to see these tunes in a new context, but one can’t deny wishing that there was both more of it and that it was newer material. However, the music is unquestionably great.

It’s hard to have missed the cultural sensation that was 'This Is America' last year, as it hijacked airwaves and headlines through its outspoken politics and its hypnotising, angry and passionate music video. When it appears in Guava Island, it’s a surprise at first. Since musical moments here are, themselves, a bit like little music videos, it’s hard to see it competing with the Grammy-winning America music video. Instead, Glover decides not to compete but deliver something slightly different. Reworking the tune so it begins more vocally and slides into instruments gradually, Glover keeps the chant-like, African-inspired dancing and locates it to a more thematic context – challenging character’s dreams of escaping to America, when America is more a concept of money and fame present in any country.

Later, Glover charms Rihanna with a similarly reworked rendition of 'Summertime Magic', once again beginning with vocals before gently fading in the pulsing, rhythmic instruments. 'Feels Like Summer', sadly, is just constrained to a radio performance and an appearance in the credits – but that can’t lessen its warm, feel-good vibe. Finally, Glover performs 'Saturday' at his festival, a punchy track that’s only usually available from his Saturday Night Live performance. All the tunes are funky, tropical, and have the absolute feeling of summer.

It’s a shame that so few tunes are new, but their quality is indisputable. The most curious thing, though, is the musical absence of Rihanna. She gives a very fine acting performance, channelling concern and hope well, but there are no collaborative tracks between Glover and her. It seems a bizarre oversight to have two famous singers together... and yet not together in music. But Guava Island is a sweet and a small rush of success - the colour enthrals, the message is prescient, and the music is full of life and energy.   

Guava Island is available now on Prime Video 

Lead image credit: Columbia Pictures

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