Even as details were finally released earlier this week about “Guava Island,” the secret project that Donald Glover debuted at Coachella in advance of its Amazon Prime premiere Saturday, there was some confusion as to what exactly it would be.
It’s not a “visual album,” in the style of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” or Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer,” nor is it a feature-length jukebox narrative, à la “Purple Rain.” (It runs just shy of an hour.) But if we learned anything from Glover and the director Hiro Murai’s previous collaborations on the FX series “Atlanta,” it’s that they don’t mind if their work is difficult to classify — if anything, they seem to revel in it.
This Is America,” the much-seen and much-discussed Murai-directed music video for Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. (The song is remixed and restaged here.)
Game of Thrones”) rules the island with an iron fist, and machine gun-slinging men patrol his factory floors.
“Guava Island’s” plot is as thin as the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musicals of its distant heritage: Deni has planned a secret all-night music festival (not unlike, say, a secret musical film), but its attendees would consequently not work on Sunday, which is deeply unacceptable to Red Cargo. He offers Deni $10,000 to cancel the event, explaining, “I’m in charge of the people of this island. I have to do what’s best for everyone.” No prizes for guessing whether the show goes on, though the consequences of that decision carry more weight than usual.
Thus, it’s one of those stories where the musical numbers are “realistic” (kinda, sorta) because the protagonist is a musician, and Murai takes thankful pains to work the songs into the fabric of the narrative. Yet there’s not as much music as one might expect, considering the pedigrees of its stars. Aside from Deni’s radio songs, there are only a handful of musical numbers, most of them reworking existing Gambino tracks. (Rihanna, even more surprisingly, doesn’t sing at all.)
But there’s real juice to those sequences, which include a lovely, beachside rendering of “Summertime Magic” and a concert performance of “Saturday” that manages to stage the kind of joy that’s spontaneously captured in the best concert documentaries, like “Wattstax” and “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Onstage, Deni frames his event as “a celebration of life — I want everyone here to feel as free as you possibly can tonight,” and above all else, “Guava Island” is a paean to the pleasures of taking it easy. “We live in paradise,” Deni fumes, “but none of us have time or means to actually live here!”