Donald Glover’s latest mysterious, musical project Guava Island premiered this weekend after Glover’s Childish Gambino Coachella set and it’s simultaneously very satisfying as well as yet another tease for a larger amount of either Childish Gambino and/or Glover-Mirai material that we won’t be getting for who knows exactly how long. Fans of Glover’s Atlanta will enjoy Guava Island, as it utilizes one of the show’s writers, Stephen Glover, as well as its primary director Hiro Murai to craft that now-familiar Glover tone that mixes comedy with undertones of dread and very real danger, with splashes of surrealism or musicality all wrapped up and presented in some beautifully framed and lit images.
The short film (it’s a little less than an hour) is streaming on Amazon Prime, with the description calling it a “tropical thriller.” That may be partly true, particularly during the climax, but for the majority of these mostly enjoyable and beautiful 55 minutes, Guava Island is operating in full musical territory.
Guava Island was reportedly influenced by the 2002 Brazilian film City of God, and the crime and thriller elements can believably come from that film. However, for most of the time I was watching this I was reminded of another Rio de Janeiro film, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus from 1959. Donald Glover’s protagonist, Deni, in particular, carries echoes of Orfeu, the romantic hero who jokes and flirts his way around Rio with his guitar always in hand and a song ready on his lips. Although shot in Cuba, the look of Guava Island is reminiscent of Black Orpheus and its favelas and narrow streets brimming with music. Additionally, both stories feel something like a fairy tale or a myth (well, Orpheus is a literal myth), with Guava Island dedicating an entire animated sequence to the history of Guava’s creation and struggle, and both stories have their charming, musical heroes meet tragic ends.
There are many virtues to Guava Island, and lots to talk about depending on which facet you zero in on. Overall, though, there are some undeniably enjoyable moments that make this film worth watching. And so, in order of appearance, let’s run down the highlights of the Guava Island experience:
- Absolutely delightful opening credits, which are animated and set to an unreleased (argh!) Childish Gambino track “Die With You.” Here, we’re introduced to the players and their parts.
- More animation, as Rihanna as Kofi narrates the story of Guava in the style of a bedtime story. The Isle of Guava, once a paradise on Earth, free from the “two warring elements of love and war” was overtaken by greed once outsiders discovered the rare clay worm which spins blue silk. Ever since the residents of the island have been under control and employment (same thing) by “the Red family.” Deni and Kofi (Rihanna!) are childhood sweethearts, with Deni being the dashing dreamer who wants to make music to make a beautiful world, and Kofi being the one who grew up dreaming of greener pastures. We see them fall in love as the sun sets and rises again, and they grow a bit older every time.
- The comedic tone of the film is established with Deni making jokes with the kids who are attempting to rob him on the street. He knows them! And hey, they’re making him late for work and if he’s late, he can’t make money which they can steal. This blend of humor with stark reality and a dash of commentary is a very Donald Glover thing.
- Deni works at “the docks,” and hosts a radio show all residents seem to listen to, and Kofi works alongside Yara (Letitia Wright), sewing that rare silk into garments all day long. At work, Glover tips his hat to what this film is going to be like (cough, a musical, cough). After a co-worker talks about how life might be better in America, Deni laughs and says “this is America…America is a concept.” This leads into him singing the opening lines of “This is America” (“we just want to party, party just for you”). A few moments later, a performance of “This is America” has fully started with group choreography to boot! It’s an eye-catching performance that manages to be different enough from the music video and earlier performances to become its own thing within the film. Glover performs it with his usual edge, but with an added sense of humor which is more appropriate for Deni’s personality.
- While checking in with Kofi at work, we learn that Rihanna can play a bit of a wallflower! Yara encourages Kofi to get up and dance with her; Kofi demurs and instead does a nerdy but adorable finger wag and shoulder shimmy in her chair. Who knew I could ever relate to Rihanna when it comes to dancing?
- The Guavans apparently never get a day off, and so Deni wants to give them one: a one-man music festival Saturday night into Sunday morning, with everyone taking the rest of Sunday off of work. Red (Nonso Anozie) does not like this, and bribes then threatens Deni to cancel the show. Before meeting with Red, Deni is made to wear a hand-written nametag. This is one of the best dark, and cutting, jokes of the film: the uber-capitalist Red can’t ever see his employees as anything but that, and they must look the part always. Employees don’t tell you their name; they make you read their nametag at your convenience.
- Kofi and Deni meet for lunch, and the entire sequence is adorable and beautiful. Deni performs a sparse version of “Summertime Magic” to Kofi. Rihanna isn’t given so much to do on Guava Island, but she gives a lot of charming, low-key attitude and flirtation here that helps cement their relationship.
- Kofi is pregnant and is worried about telling Deni, who as an artist probably prefers freedom. She is also worried that the rumors about Red pressuring Deni to cancel his music fest are true and that Deni won’t do it. While listening to his radio show, we learn that he indeed won’t cancel. He performs “Feels Like Summer” in a sequence that is genuinely inventive and subtly delightful. We hear the song playing through various radios throughout the island, with varying volumes and static levels. It’s a fresh way to present a song, as well as an efficient way to illustrate the role Deni and his music plays in this community.
- That night at the festival, Deni performs “Saturday”, only to be shot at by a masked henchman afterward, chased down into an empty building and then murdered in cold blood.
- The next day, everyone takes off of work to commemorate Deni’s life with a massive funeral parade. The people of Guava are dressed in shades of blue, with the confused and frustrated Red wearing his fitting shades of orange and red. This might tie into Childish Gambino’s cover art for 2018’s EP Summer Pack, which contained “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer.” This is what I mean by Guava Island being satisfying. For every bit of clarity we get in terms of the meaning of “This is America” or the visuals of Summer Pack, we get a new song or yet another performance of a familiar song that is still unreleased (Glover performed “Saturday” during his SNL appearance last year).
- Kofi walks among the parade in beautiful blue widows’ dress and has an absolutely killer stare down with Red, one which Rihanna’s expressive eyes were made for. The two lock eyes and Kofi turns to face him. She states what Red has already learned: “We got our day.” Then she smiles, a smile that indicates someone feeling a glimmer of hope, power, and winning for the first time maybe ever.