‘Sylvie’s Love’: Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha Light up the Screen in Old-Fashioned Romance

Two young lovers find each other in 1950s New York City in “Sylvie’s Love,” an old-fashioned romance that takes place in the ’50s and ’60s. Tessa Thompson plays the titular character, Sylvie Johnson, a young woman from a respected Harlem family who unexpectedly finds love with Robert Halloway (Nnamdi Asomugha), a jazz saxophonist who takes a job at her father’s (Lance Reddick) record store. The pair are absolutely luminous together as their characters both experience a full range of emotions as they face societal and personal changes.

“Sylvie’s Love” was written and directed by Eugene Ashe, who set out to make the rare romantic period drama with Black leads. “I was pining for classic love stories,” he revealed to Entertainment Voice. “I hadn’t seen one in a very long time. I love movies like ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Mahogany.’ The last couple ones were ‘The Notebook’ and maybe ‘Love Jones,’ but we certainly haven’t seen very many with Black folks starring in them. Usually, it’s a romantic comedy, which I like, but I just wanted to see a romantic drama. The genre, I felt, was underserved.”

Ashe pointed out that most films set during this period featuring Black characters tend to focus on the civil rights movement, which is not absent from “Sylvie’s Love,” as the two main characters and their friends and family members cannot help but be impacted by the sweeping change around them, especially in the second half of the film set in the early 1960s. “It’s interesting, because I didn’t know it at the time, but it wound up sort of mirroring a lot of what’s happening today,” said Ashe.

But the first half is all about love, and despite their undeniable chemistry, there are impediments to Sylvie and Robert’s romance, the biggest one being her fiancé, Lacy (Alano Miller), who is away fighting in Korea when they first meet. And while Robert gets along famously with Sylvie’s father, whom he fondly calls Mr. Jay, her mother, Eunice (Erica Gimpel), an etiquette teacher, doesn’t think he’s good enough for her daughter. In one memorable scene in which Sylvia gushes to her mother about Robert’s musical abilities, Eunice chastises her for “heaping praise” on a young man who’s beneath her.

“They were really terrific,” said Ashe of his two leads, who both also served as producers. “They had an instant chemistry right away that you can see transferred well into the film. They were consummate professionals. Nnamdi comes from an NFL football background, so he’s used to working very hard. And Tessa’s done every type of movie you can think of, from the small indies to the Marvel movies, so she really knows film at every level. She brought production value, for lack of a better term. She acts like a movie star. She brought the star quality to the movie that would have been tough for someone else to replicate.”

While Robert and Sylvie are falling in love, his jazz quartet, which is led by less-talented libertine Dickie Brewster (Tone Bell), starts to take off under a new manager, Countess (Jemima Kirke). Eventually, Sylvie makes a difficult choice regarding her relationship with Robert, and when they next meet five years later, she has a major secret.

In addition to Reddick, Gimpel, Bell and Kirke, Ashe cast other stellar co-stars, including Eva Longoria as Dickie’s performer wife, Carmed, Aja Naomi King as Mona, Sylvie’s fun-loving cousin who becomes an activist, and Regé-Jean Page as Chico, Robert’s colorful bandmate who romances Mona. 

Ashe gives a lot for credit to Thompson and Asomugha for bringing together the incredible ensemble. “What Tessa and Nnamdi also provided was access. Tessa and Nnamdi have relationships with a lot of different people because of the circles they move in… Everybody was very receptive and responsive to the script, so that was great. We wanted to use people that you don’t see all the time, bringing somebody like Erica Gimpel, who was on the television show ‘Fame’ to play the mother. Seeing Eva dance like that and sing was really a fun thing to do, and Tone Bell, who’s a comedian, played a dramatic role. It was just a lot of fun to get people out of their comfort zone.” 

The filmmaker went on to praise Page, an actor on the rise whom he called a surprise. “He’s in a show called ‘Bridgerton’ coming out on the same day. He’s a really terrific actor. He plays Chico in the movie. He has an English accent in real life, and no one knew he had an English accent until the day we wrapped. He came in in character and stayed in character the whole time. I was the only person who knew he spoke in an English accent. They were very surprised, because he was so Chico (laughs). Him and Aja Naomi King had a really great rapport too. They had great chemistry.”

While “Sylvie’s Love” has an old-school feel, it’s also very modern, not only because of the civil rights subplot, but also for its feminist streak. While Robert’s band has a female manager, Sylvie is also career-minded. She has ambitions to make television shows during a time when there weren’t a lot of women or Black people producing. Eventually, she works her way up the ladder on a cooking show with a woman host, Lucy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and it’s inspiring to watch as she finds fulfillment beyond the traditional roles women were usually confined to at the time. 

Ashe, who himself has a musical background, explained why he relates to both Sylvie and Robert. “I certainly based the relationships between Robert and his bandmates on my own experiences with my band members. I like to think I’m a little bit of both. I have the same kind of aspirational goals that Sylvie has, in being a writer and director and going into television.”

While Sylvie and Robert’s romance is the heart of the film, music is its soul. Sylvie and Robert bond over songs by Black artists of the day, and Ashe also uses music to mark the changes in time. As the music of Motown overtakes jazz in popularity, Robert feels left behind, and as the musical landscape evolves, so does his and Sylvie’s relationship. Robert is especially relatable when he reaches that point that so many creative people face, when he has to choose between pursuing his passion or a more sensible career.

According to Ashe, the soundtrack was put together with care. “A lot of the songs, the needle drops, as we call them, the existing songs, those were in the script from the beginning. I grew up listening to my mother playing them, or my dad playing them. Those were songs that were important to me and I knew would anchor up to the period.” 

Ashe recalled how he worked closely with composer Fabrice Lecomte, who wrote the original songs and the score. “I really wanted those songs that the band performed to sound like something from that time, not just some kind of corny [type of] jazz. He did a really terrific job and we had some really great musicians play. And then, the score, I really wanted it to sound like a Michel Legrand [score with] really big, lush strings, so we used a 55-piece orchestra to record that, just because synthetic strings and synth instruments just wouldn’t have given you the same kind of weight that you get. It would have taken you out of the moment. It just reinforces the period that we also recorded the underscore the way that the score used to be recorded for the old movies.”

Sylvie’s Love” begins streaming Dec, 23 on Amazon Prime Video.