On stage at Coachella this past weekend, Donald Glover upended expectations for the Instagram-ready festival in more ways than one. At one point, he took time out of his set performing as Childish Gambino to talk about death. “What I’m starting to realize,” he said, citing the recent death of his father along with musicians Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle, “[is that] all we really have is memories…while you’re here, while we’re here, feel something and pass it on.”
The multi-talented artist is known for expounding on the big picture, but this particular focus on mortality and personal impact is a raw nerve that he strikes at again and again with his work. Although danger looms over his 55-minute film Guava Island — which premiered both at Coachella and on Amazon — the island-set folk tale is also his most vibrant and hopeful collaboration with Atlanta’s Stephen Glover (Donald’s brother, who gets the writing credit for Guava Island) and Hiro Murai (also the director of episodes like “Teddy Perkins” and music videos like “This is America”).
The spirit of music is alive and pulsing on Guava Island, where local musician Deni Maroon (Glover) works for the corrupt ruling business Red Cargo, romances his childhood sweetheart Kofi (Rihanna), and dreams of “one day writing a song that would unite the people of the island.” Deni is planning a music festival, but Red (Nonso Anozie) wants to suppress his performance and any unity it might inspire, saying that a party one night will result in his exploited employees skipping work the next. Music, though, seems to flow through the island of its own will, tapped out in alleyways and on beaches by the young and old alike, and it refuses to be stamped out by any one man.
Not much actually happens in Guava Island, and what does seems set in stone from the start. But, as with Murai and Glover’s other artistic collaborations, that’s completely beside the point. Every moment of the way Deni and Kofi’s story unfolds, from the vibrantly animated creation myth-turned-love-story that introduces them, to the lush and dreamy 16mm-like aesthetic (Atlanta cinematographer Christian Sprenger also lends his talents here), is imbued with a dazzling mix of grandiosity and intimacy. A dizzying collection of songs, colors, and bodies, Guava Island is a gift for the senses. Any sense of spiritual or communal connection is intentional, as shots of hard-working people all over the island listening to Deni’s radio show culminate in an event that ripples through the small island. Even as a sun-soaked day turns into an overcast night, the camera still maintains a sense of warmth, especially when trained on Rihanna’s controlled but excellent performance.
Familiarity is key to Guava Island, making it a richer viewing experience for Glover fans. Beyond the obvious meta factor of his role as a musician about to perform at a music festival, there’s the industrialized arrangement of “This Is America,” which Deni performs in a moment of musical surrealism when a coworker insists that America is a land of opportunity. Later, specific imagery like a white cloth bag placed over a character’s head and Glover running in the dark calls to mind the song’s hit music video. Masks, a recurring motif used to unsettle viewers and characters alike in Atlanta, pop up more than once here as well. Perhaps most tellingly, Deni himself bears more than a passing resemblance to Atlanta’s protagonist Earn; he’s often late, bored by routine, resistant to taking the easy way out, and occasionally corny. Both men are hustling in a system set up to keep them down, and while Guava Island doesn’t directly comment on race relations and politics the way Atlanta does, it does feature color-coded workspaces–the women sew and wear blue, while the men work with cargo and wear red–and obvious class disparity. These similarities between the Glovers’ works don’t come across as redundancies, but rather natural continuations, different riffs and takes on these a few themes which clearly haunt the artists.
In music, acting, and writing, Glover and his collaborators tend to favor the surprising and uneasy; his best works all feel a bit like tilting back in an uneven chair, exciting and nerve-wracking up until the moment of that swift and unexpected thrill that could very well end badly. Guava Island’s biggest surprise may be that it doesn’t play with tension as thoroughly as Atlanta or Gambino videos, instead choosing to dig for something more earnest and tentatively hopeful that matches Glover’s Coachella speech. “We’re too afraid to plant a tree that we know we’re not going to eat from,” he told audiences Saturday night, about a generation that’s grown up in an era of uncertainty. If Guava Island and his Coachella performance are any indications, Glover doesn’t need or expect any of us to get a happy ending; he just wants us to chase this perfect moment.