Review: Guava Island

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

guava island, donald glover, childish gambino

PLOT: A young musician, Deni Maroon (Donald Glover), has songs in his heart and the love of his life, Kofi (Rihanna), on his arm, and wants to bring the people of Guava Island together for a music festival that celebrates the paradise they live in. However, he faces opposition from a business tycoon (Nonso Anozie) who demands Maroon cancel the festival so as not to distract people from working the docks and shops he owns. 

REVIEW: Donald Glover is a man full of surprises. Starting off in the business in sketch comedy, performing stand-up and writing for Tina Fey’s 30 ROCK – all before breaking out on the show COMMUNITY – he seemed poised to be one of the great young comedy stars. He was, but then in the form of the successful reinvention he would become known, for he switched gears to focus on music, taking on the stage name Childish Gambino and launching a hip-hop career that would find him gliding between rap, R&B and funk. As he launched the sensational show ATLANTA and continued to churn out music that was unique compared to what came before, he’s marking the start of another shift with the movie GUAVA ISLAND, which is perhaps the best showcase of all the many talents he has demonstrated again and again over the years.

The shame of it is that ISLAND comes as Glover plans to retire the Gambino name, something he announced about two years ago. This secret project written by his brother Stephen Glover and directed by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai – the man suited to bring out Glover’s humor, depth, and zaniness – was filmed in Cuba and uses the newest of Gambino’s music. As well, the movie debuted at Coachella not but a few days ago and ahead of Gambino’s opening set at the festival, which in execution makes perfect sense, because if this is perhaps some of the last we will see of Gambino, it just about perfectly sums up across a 55-minute runtime how he feels about music and it’s power to unite and overcome.

Set on the paradise Guava Island, Glover plays Deni Maroon, a local musician and folk hero who soothes souls and gets feet moving with his music on the local radio station. While the island has its picturesque landscapes and arresting sunsets, the whole area is ruled over by a corrupt figure, Red (Nonso Anozie), who wants everyone to work, work and do more work. It’s Maroon’s belief that if they are all going to live in paradise they should be able to enjoy it for at least one day and prepares to play at a festival that will get people dancing all night and taking off work the next day, Sunday. Of course, to Red, this is no good, and it would interfere with his policy of “work, work and do more work,” so he seeks to silence Maroon with flattery, money, and veiled threats – but to no avail. For Maroon, the show must and will go on.

Glover has demonstrated comedy skills in the past and in a more subtle way on ATLANTA, where he flexes more of his dramatic muscles, and then gets to unleash his musical side as Gambino. Here, as the rebel hero who unites the people with music that defies the powers that be, he’s charming, soulful and, across musical numbers, gets to groove and give some energy to the film. It encompasses everything that makes him a unique and evolving talent, proving just when you’ve seen him do his best work he comes out with more. He may not be demonstrating his visceral oddness like in the “Teddy Perkins” episode of ATLANTA, but as an artist of incredible depth, this is the best he’s been so far – which I say knowing he could somehow top himself before the year’s end.

Alongside him is none other than musical royalty Rihanna, who has made the transition to acting with several films like OCEAN’S 8 and BATTLESHIP, but hasn’t always had the material to showcase her emotional side as an actor. Her character, Kofi, Maroon’s girlfriend who works in one of Red’s shops, is set up as a major feature of the movie given her narrations over the sweet, animated intro and later over the final moments. But during the movie, she doesn’t get to shine as brightly as Maroon, mostly spending her time deep in thought while watching him play music or hearing her friend Yara (Letitia Wright) give some advice. Rihanna does what she can, conveying a quizzical nature as she looks Maroon up and down, knowing how his mind works better than anyone. What would have been nice would’ve been a duet of sorts between the two, but when he’s serenading her with the summertime jam “Summertime Magic” she just gets to watch, walk along the pier and later dance along. I’m not saying she has to sing in all her projects, but this movie is such a great demonstration of Glover’s talents, so why not hers too?

As with his work on the show, ATLANTA and the cultural event that was the music video for Gambino’s “This is America,” Murai films in a way that calls to mind one of the movie’s inspirations, the Brazilian drama CITY OF GOD. You get a flavor of the island’s rich cultural landscape across the marvelous beaches and the wet alleyways, the heat always barring down. The more grounded approach to the cinematography and visual style doesn’t diminish the more fantastical moments, and Murai did the unthinkable and found yet a new way to make “This is America” feel just as fresh and innovative as every during a number on the docks, with Maroon trying to prove to a fellow worker that America is just an idea, and what they’re trapped in the more unfortunate aspects of. Murai has a very visceral, insightful eye, and takes you right into the heart of the island culture, making sure to keep front and center numerous elements, including excellent costumes and their recurrent blue and orange color scheme.

While this is mostly Glover’s show there is some great work from the supporting cast as well, namely Wright and Anozie, the latter further demonstrating the same scene-stealing energy and spirit that won over fans in BLACK PANTHER last year. She only gets about two scenes, but she shines in both. Then there’s Anozie, perfectly cast as the imposing villain who can win you over with his deceptive charm and likability, before plotting your downfall in the back of his mind. 

One of my only major complaints about GUAVA ISLAND is I wish there was more of it. Not only could some other characters be fleshed out, but there would much more of the funky, inventive music and the pristine environment they so beautifully captured. But perhaps this is just me being selfish. The Glovers, Murai and their team achieved what they set out to do, which was tell a story about how music, love, culture, and art can triumph over greed and suppression, and they did it with style, humor, energy and in all under an hour. Yes, I wanted much more of GUAVA ISLAND by the tragic yet uplifting end, for several reasons, but for fans of Glover, Gambino or of stories that champion the triumph of creativity over tyranny, I can think of fewer better ways to spend an hour.  

GUAVA ISLAND is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime today (4/13), and will remain on the service afterward for Prime subscribers.

Guava Island



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