VOD film review: Guava Island
James R | On 14, Apr 2019
Director: Hiro Murai
Cast: Donald Glover, Rihanna, Letitia Wright
Watch Guava Island online in the UK: Amazon Prime Video
Is there anything Donald Glover can’t do? The Community star and 30 Rock writer has gone from strength to strength in his increasingly versatile career, as at home creating Atlanta for FX as he is DJing under the name mcDJ or headlining on stage as Childish Gambino at Coachella. During his set at the festival this year, he also dropped a new film, as you do, and the result is Guava Island, a slight but engaging musical thriller.
The movie, which was shot in secret in Cuba last year, introduces us to the titular island, where the majority of people seem to work all the time in factories, all helping to make local businessman Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie, Game of Thrones’ Xaro Xhoan Daxos) richer and more powerful than he already is. His sweatshops are patrolled by men with guns and filled with the sound of his radio station, complete with catchy jingles that would make Adam Buxton jealous.
Those are courtesy of Deni (Glover), a young musician who dreams of bringing his island together with his music – in the opposite way to his jingles get them working with a smile. And what ensues is primarily a story of artistic freedom, exploring the tensions between creativity and commerce, between business and rebellion.
If that sounds heavy, turn your dial several digits lower; Guava Island is as light as cinema comes, delicately breezing through its themes with a wafting, pleasant warmth. A large part of that is thanks to Glover himself, who is charisma personified as Deni, a man who breaks into song regularly. But this isn’t just a visual compilation of Gambino tracks, although it does mostly consist of his previously released songs (including This Is America). It isn’t a fully-fledged jukebox musical to rival Mamma Mia! either. Instead, it’s something shorter and more playful, at its best when Deni is serenading Kofi (Rihanna) with the wonderful Summertime Magic.
Hiro Murai (responsible for Atlanta’s stunning look) is at home with Glover’s music, and crafts some delicious visuals to go with its soundtrack, including a remixed This Is America dance sequence. It’s just a shame that Glover’s other collaborators, Rihanna and the always infectiously upbeat Letitia Wright, don’t get more to do than play second fiddle to Deni – Rihanna, surprisingly, doesn’t sing a single note, although she does lend her voiceover to a beautiful animated prologue that outlines the folktale-like history of the island.
A climax involving a festival that Deni secretly plans to hold is the closest Guava Island gets to a narrative, and his venture does take a dramatic twist, but just as this isn’t a wall-to-wall music video, it’s also not a complex thriller. But there’s a gentle charm to proceedings that’s captured perfectly by Murai’s 4:3 aspect ratio, which gives events the feel of a holiday photo album. Embrace the laid-back, low-key vibe and Guava Island has a likeable groove that’s infectious for its 55 minutes.
Guava Island is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.