Guava Island, Amazon Prime’s Donald Glover–produced musical film, hit the streaming service Saturday morning, and it isn’t very good. Although the secretive production and limited free-streaming window suggested Glover—musical stage name Childish Gambino—was working on a project like Lemonade, it turns out the main thing Glover took from Beyoncé was the marketing plan. Instead of a coherent piece of art in which sound and image trace and deepen the same thematic paths, Guava Island, in which Glover plays a musician trying to put on a festival against the wishes of a local despot, is a collection of unrelated, mostly previously released songs indifferently stitched together by a hokey narrative. (The complete lack of chemistry between Glover and his costar Rihanna—who doesn’t sing in the movie—doesn’t help.) There’s nothing wrong with reverse-engineering a movie from its music—see, e.g., the greatest musical of all time—and the rustic Cuban locations are lovely, but screenwriter Stephen Glover and director Hiro Murai mostly spend their time making excuses for launching into songs that are unrelated to what’s happening on screen. For example, here’s the awkward monologue Glover has to deliver in order to shoehorn in a new arrangement of his hit “This is America” into Guava Island, which is set on Guava Island, a place that does not exist anywhere, but especially does not exist in America:
This is America. Guava’s no different than any other country. America is a concept. Anywhere where in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.
The seams show, to put it mildly. You don’t have to have seen The Hollywood Revue of 1929 to appreciate Singin’ in the Rain—in fact, it’s easier if you haven’t!—but it’d be impossible to appreciate Guava Island’s musique concrète version of “This Is America” without knowing the original music video, a much sharper fusion of sound and image that was also directed by Hiro Murai. It’s unclear why any of the talents involved wanted to stage a less-effective version of something they got right the first time, but whatever their motivations, Guava Island is the very definition of a derivative work.
And it’s derived from many works. Advance material for Guava Island namechecked City of God and Purple Rain, but Black Orpheus, The Harder They Come, and even Dancer in the Dark have space on the production’s mood board. The affinities go beyond plot and setting: Cinematographer Christian Sprenger layers film grain and scratches over a sun-faded palette for a 16mm aesthetic, even rounding the corners of the narrow frame to evoke home movie projectors. This was almost certainly done in post-production: The credits say the film was shot digitally, and Spengler managed something similar on Atlanta by making a film print of his episode, then rescanning it. But the effect is slightly marred by a precise, shallow focus that doesn’t quite match Guava Island’s other low-budget signifiers.
And speaking of shallow focus, Guava Island’s story is full of it. From the animated opening, in which Rihanna explains the suspiciously Lorax-like backstory of the island and her dream of “a new life, free from survival,” to the groanworthy final voiceover, nothing in Guava Island’s 55-minute runtime stands up to a minute’s thought, despite valiant efforts from supporting actors Letitia Wright and Nonso Anozie. There’s something about the entire project that’s backwards: Murai’s “This Is America” video made Glover’s music sharper and more specific; Guava Island glops up the same music with a half-baked allegory that dulls every note. Steer clear.