If Childish Gambino's secret post-Coachella musical thriller, Guava Island, is anything, it's a disappointing culmination of a year of musical and cultural teases. Set on a fictitious island paradise, the film loosely follows Deni (Donald Glover/Gambino) and Kofi (Rihanna), two lovers caught in the middle of a cultural war between freedom of time and expression and the overbearing industrial needs of the island's de facto ruler, "Red," (Nonso Anozie).
You may remember the whispers of this project skirting around the internet, with furtive selfies of Rihanna and Glover/Gambino all sun-kissed and smiling. It was so secret even co-star Letitia Wright kept her mouth shut when leaks alleged she was attached. And, there was that shaky-cam snapshot of the film's trailer at some festival or another. All together, they fed the hype machine, leading us to this week when Gambino and Amazon executives announced this tropical tale would go live at exactly 12:02am on April 13th.
At its core, Guava Island is a “film” in the same way that projects like Beyonce’s Lemonade, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and Solange’s When I Get Home are films. They’re not quite traditional musical like The Wiz or RENT or, even a musically-oriented film, like Pitch Perfect or Sister Act. Rather, these projects sit in the realm of “visual album,” which seems to have become code for “extended music video that wants to claim higher meaning and cinematic levels of recognition while serving you ever more content.”
However, where Guava Island differs is in its almost coldly calculated construction of “things we know people who love movies, the islands and Childish Gambino will probably like.” By combining animation, Glover's now-trademark jerky dancing, and director Hiro Murai's unmistakable ability—as executed by Atlanta cinematographer Christian Sprenger — to make the most mundane scenes artistic, Guava Island coaxes you into a world that’s rich in tunes and theatrics. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also shot in what seems like rich film stock in a 1:1 aspect ratio, for that old-timey and analog sensibility that matches real-life Cuba's charm.
It's important to note all these stylistic elements, because no one's really acting in the main cast. Rihanna is relegated to "beautiful muse" territory, relaying screenwriter Stephen Glover's lines as needed, while Gambino can't seem to decide if he wants to maintain a psuedo-Caribbean accent or not. The tapestry of locals used as extras, along with the architectural and organic landscape of Cuba, give the film its most resounding authenticity. Meanwhile Nonso Anozie and Letitia Wright do their best to ground the film with some level of thespian flair. You've got to give them credit for taking it seriously, as Guava Island dips in and out of the absurd at a moment's notice.
Which, would work if it didn't feel so hollow. Murai and Sprenger’s camera-work captures the pure beauty and soul of the concept behind Guava Island. With their guidance, we can on some level, believe in Deni’s quest to throw a music festival that would unyoke the island’s people from Red’s grasp. And, Mobolaji Dawodu’s (Mother of George, Restless City, Queen of Katwe) costuming gilds our experiences with rich primary colors and homey details that feel as readily diasporic as they are vibrant. But, at its best Guava Island still tastes aspartame or sorbitol; it's reminiscent of sugar, but not quite it. You can see City of God, Black Orpheus, Purple Rain, bits of Fela Kuti, Buena Vista Social Club, and even wisps of another not-so-great interpretation of the Caribbean, The Mighty Quinn, floating in Guava Island's veins. But it never fulfills any sense of concrete originality to honor its influences. Rather, it insists on doing exactly one thing: being a great piece of content marketing for Gambino's next album and his burgeoning proximity to that damned term, “genius.”
It's a shame. Where Atlanta provided a glimpse of an artist committing singularly to an idea, Guava Island is a phantasmagorical collection of art school necessities — bright colors, animation, celebrity cameos, non-professional actors, chiaroscuro, absurdity and surreality, vague nostalgia, and “if this, then that” cultural critique. Altogether, they create a dazzling carapace. But when you drum on the shell, there's a hollowness throughout. Surely, it'll play well with the (mostly white) music festival crowd who simply want to consume Gambino and his art. However, if we're speaking about an artist who we have come to expect more from – culturally and cinematically – Guava Island is just too unsound to really enjoy.
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.