The natural impulse when trying to find a proper context for the Donald Glover vanity project Guava Island is to consider it in conversation with recent “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. While it is billed as “a Childish Gambino film” and features a smattering of songs from Glover’s most recent album under that pseudonym, this isn’t exactly the form-breaking music video experiment we’ve been seeing echoed in the post-Lemonade era. It’s far too loose & laid-back to hold up to that standard. Guava Island is an hour-long, low-key movie musical that only allows its surrealist touches & music video interludes to creep in from the borders of the frame. It’s more narratively focused than its fellow visual albums, but also too casual & relaxed in its narrative to feel too substantial without its occasional breaks for Glover’s music. Guava Island is deliberately minor in some ways as a result, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unpleasant or not worthwhile. The worst you can say about it is that it often feels like a thin excuse to watch beautiful pop stars vacation in Cuba; that’s not such a terrible thing.
An opening narration from Glover’s costar, Rihanna, promises something much more adventurous & detached from reality than what’s ultimately delivered. She establishes the fictional island setting in a magical-realist folktale about the battle between Love & War that has raged since the island’s creation, a storybook monologue illustrated by 2D animation akin to 90s era Disney titles like The Emperor’s New Groove. This tale of The Dueling Truths (love & war) is only faintly echoed in the live-action story that follows – love in the beautiful silks & music that the island creates and war in the evil capitalist shipping company Red Cargo that seeks to commodify those arts. Of course, Donald Glover’s protagonist finds himself at the exact center of this struggle. He seeks to woo Rihanna (along with the rest of the island) with his beautiful music, but the wicked Red Cargo company only wants him to sing jingles promoting their products and encouraging their workers to remain productive. The whole thing culminates in a kind of workers’ uprising in the form of an all-night party that Red Cargo attempts to shut down, so its employees won’t be too tired to be industrious the next day. The stakes can be tragic, but defiance through partying & letting loose is exactly the film’s M.O. throughout.
Formally speaking, Guava Island is a gorgeous wonder. It has the classic shot-on-film look of a 70s arthouse picture (or a well-curated Instagram profile) and is effortlessly charming in its documentation of two charismatic pop stars, barely in character, vacationing in a lush tropical locale. Director Hiro Murai, who has previously collaborated with Glover on career-high achievements like the “This Is America” video & Atlanta, occasionally choreographs its music video sequences as if it were a movie-musical reiteration of arthouse relics like Touki Bouki or Black Orpheus. Glover himself brings a surreal touch to what’s otherwise a romantic hangout film in his writhing dance moves – reinterpreting the Iggy Pop contortions of his “This Is America” choreography in a newly interesting context (and prompting questions of what it would it be like if he were in a Magic Mike sequel now instead of four years ago). The only frustrating thing about the film, then, is that there isn’t more. Rihanna is a joy to watch here but doesn’t sing herself. Glover & Murai hint at a sinister, surrealist tone just under the surface of their dance sequence collaborations, but never fully unleash that impulse. The songs themselves are pleasant, but far more abrupt & spaced out than what you’ll hear in Lemonade or Dirty Computer. In almost every way, Guava Island could be more and could be better with just a little extra effort from each of its collaborators, but that doesn’t mean what’s onscreen isn’t worthwhile as is.