Guava Island 2019
Today I’m gonna be talking about the 2019 Amazon Prime-distributed tropical musical: Guava Island. It stars Donald Glover, Rihanna, Nonso Anozie, and Letitia Wright and was directed by Hiro Murai. Guava Island tells the story of Deni Maroon, played by Donald Glover, who is a musician on the isolated Guava Island.
The people of the island are oppressed and forced to work in the factories of the island’s business tycoon, Red Cargo, played by Nonso Anozie. Deni decides he wants to put on a music festival to remind. The Guava Island residents of their positive and more care-free past but faces some pushback from Red Cargo who wants to maintain his control over the island’s population. Phew, talk about a blind watch.
I knew absolutely nothing about this movie going in. It had a cool poster and a fantastic name… in fact, I can’t overstate how much I love the name. Must be some subliminal nostalgia from the countless episodes of Gullah Gullah Island I watched as a kid. But, when it came to the plot, who was in it, or even the genre, I was completely clueless. So, probably the most important thing people should know heading into this one is that it’s a musical.
People break into random song and dance frequently. The story is centered on a musician, so it’s not completely out there, but it does have that unnatural sudden group-choreography thing that musicals usually have. The other thing people should know is that this probably better classified as a short film, rather than a feature-length one. Clocking in at only fifty-five minutes, including both a cool animated opening title sequence and the credits, Guava Island almost feels more like a series of connected music videos held together by a simple narrative than a movie in the more traditional sense.
I should probably mention that I don’t know any Childish Gambino music. That might sound random or irrelevant for anyone who isn’t aware of this film, but remember how I mentioned that this is a musical? Yeah… it’s all Childish Gambino music; which was something I only realized after the fact, but will surely be immediately obvious to anybody who’s a fan of his music. Likewise, I’m sure just about everybody else on the planet is aware that Childish Gambino and Donald Glover are one and the same, but that was yet another epiphany for me. I’m not sure if it’s a Childish Gambino thing or not, but you get to see plenty of wide-eyed, jerky, full-body dancing by Glover here. Apparently, I need to listen to more rap.
The plot of Guava Island is a little light and very predictable, but still serviceable, despite borrowing very heavily from Marcel Camus’ 1959 Black Orpheus. Like, really heavily. As I mentioned, this film’s plot is mostly there to connect the songs and presents a message more than it does a truly fleshed out story. The theme of fighting negativity with positivity isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it gets the job done in its short runtime, I guess. In spite of its shortcomings on the story side, I have to say I really liked the aesthetics of this one.
It has some nice cinematic moments with perhaps my favorite being the sequences featuring the various radios around the island all tuned into Deni’s show, but it’s the filming style that really stood out to me. After the animated titles and opening sequence, we’re presented with a film that follows the resurging 4:3 aspect ratio trend.
But it works here because the whole movie takes on an older look. Although it was almost certainly shot on digital, the post-production effects give the movie a very analog film look. It really looks like an old, well-played reel, complete with grain speckles and a slightly desaturated look. I’m not entirely sure that the style served a deeper purpose other than to make it stand out among today’s slick overproduced digital films, but it managed to bring some warmth to match the film’s tropical setting. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. The major pro of this film was the look. The filming style meshed really well with the general vibe of the movie. It was a modern tale but felt like it could’ve been set during any of the last six decades.
The aspect ratio and intentional grain added a vintage feel to this movie and the red and blue color coding of clothing and ideas made it easy to keep track of the film’s thematic intentions. On the con side, my biggest issue was the film’s lack of substance. As far as the story’s concerned, there’s really just not much there. The thin plot does have a set-up that’s reminiscent of a fairy tale or fable, so that introduces a unique perspective to it all, but unfortunately, even that framing device is pretty superficial.
The whole movie never quite gets away from that insipid feeling that it was mostly a means of promoting Childish Gambino’s music. The second con has gotta be that, despite her co-starring role in the film, Rihanna never sings. Now I get that this is obviously a cinematic vehicle for Childish Gambino, but then why include another singer? It seems like a major missed opportunity not to have some sort of collaboration or duet with Rihanna, at the very least.
I’m gonna give Guava Island 3 out of 5 paws. This one was a little tough for me to rate. It’s not my favorite genre and there’s really not all that much there storywise, but what is it isn’t unpleasant or boring, so I found it at least moderately enjoyable. I would recommend Guava Island to fans of Childish Gambino. As I said, I’m not familiar with his music at all, but I imagine people who already like it will like hearing it – and seeing him – in this context. If you like long-form music videos, this movie kinda has that feel to it and if you just want a quick and breezy summery film, this wouldn’t be a terrible way to spend an hour.
If you liked Guava Island, I would definitely recommend Black Orpheus. I immediately thought of it while watching because there are just so many similarities and parallels, literally right through the final few minutes. It’s a Brazilian film with subtitles, but seriously, if you liked this one, go watch it. I would also recommend Purple Rain. The story’s quite different, but the background is pretty similar in the sense that it was basically a promotional vehicle for Prince in the same way that Guava Island is for Childish Gambino. In both cases, they play their own music while taking on the persona of a fictional character for the movie.
Alright, a couple of questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Guava Island? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite film intended to promote an artist’s music? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going. Alright, so if you got some enjoyment, insight, or information out of this review.