After mystery-steeped months of speculation, Donald Glover’s film Guava Island debuted on Amazon Prime Saturday, where it will stream free for 18 hours after premiering at Coachella before Childish Gambino’s headlining performance. While it’s slight for a film, featuring hardly enough story to support its 55-minute runtime, as a video concept album filled with both established hits and some catchy new tracks, it’s a breezy delight.
Billed as a “tropical thriller,” the film was directed by Hiro Murai, who’s worked with Glover on Atlanta, and written by the performers’ brother, Stephen Glover. It tells the story of Deni, Guava Island’s most beloved musician. He’s determined to throw a music festival and give a day off work to the oppressed laborers of the island, who toil endlessly for the authoritarian Red (Game of Thrones’s appropriately sly Nonso Anonzie). Glover’s Deni dreams of writing a song “that would unite the people of the island, a song that would remind [them] of the magic Guava had.” Rihanna co-stars as Deni’s longtime girlfriend Kofi, whose friend and confidante, Yara, is played by Black Panther’s Letitia Wright.
The film takes place in a paradisiacal nowhere; Guava Island itself is a West Indian pastiche. The movie was shot in Cuba, while Glover sings over both steel pan and bossa nova guitar, all the while slipping in and out of a slight but unplaceable accent. A handful of minor characters speak Spanish, while the Guyanese-British Letitia Wright sounds like an American and Rihanna speaks in her now-barely detectable Bajan twang. Though it’s not the first time the Caribbean has been deployed as a nebulous setting for American fantasy, the film pulls off its imprecision as it’s essentially a fable, bracketed with story-telling narration from Rihanna, Edward Scissorhands-style.
Music propels the film from its start, beginning with the beautifully animated opening credits, set to the new song “Die with You.” But the set piece is Glover’s performance of “This is America,” which begins with a gorgeous a capella rendition of the song’s introduction and builds to a remix that uses industrial machinery as a percussive background. While the original track looked at America from the perspective of its black citizenry, the song gains a new layer with Guava Island’s treatment, which considers American identity from the perspective of the Global South. There’s also a pared down rendition of “Summertime Magic,” Glover’s steel pan-driven hit that was never not going to be in this movie, and a climactic performance of “Saturday.”
The film’s biggest disappointment, however, is that Rihanna doesn’t sing a single note. RiRi is no acting powerhouse, so to include her in a musical film in the under-baked role of the supportive girlfriend and never once showcase her doing what she does best feels almost unforgivable. And the endlessly charming Wright, as the supportive girlfriend’s sympathetic bestie, has even less to do.
There’s no small whiff of narcissism to Glover devoting an entire, if not exactly full-length, film to the idea of himself as a musical messiah who holds the key to an entire nation’s freedom. But more than anything else in this beautiful, if slightly self-indulgent spectacle, his relatively simple remix of “This is America” perfectly showcases Glover’s skills as a singer and performer. Glover has promised that he will soon retire Childish Gambino, and the persona could not have a more perfect send off than this.