Rhianna Doesn’t Sing on ‘Guava Island’

Everything’s Chill Until It’s Not in This Bizarre but Decent Childish Gambino Musical Streaming Art Project

Our brave new streaming world gives us now the gift of things that don’t have to be a thing. Sitcom episodes that last 49 endless minutes? Why not? Oscar-caliber movies that should be seen on a big screen, but totally won’t be? Roma me, baby!

Until that creative window closes and the powers that be establish rules, there’s room for things like Guava Island, a 55-minute something available on Amazon Prime. It stars Childish Gambino (actor, singer, award-winner, bonkers interview-giver Donald Glover) and Rihanna. Do not look directly upon the goddess, mortals.

Guava Island sort of works like an extended visual album, something like Lemonade or Frank Ocean’s Endless, but with only a handful of songs, some previously released to high chart positions and/or awards.

It’s not quite a movie, in terms of length or content. Its ideas feel too slight and diffuse.

If it were a longish episode of Atlanta, the FX television show that also combines the talents of Glover, Guava Island screenwriter and sibling Stephen Glover, and director Hiro Murai, fans of the show would accept it as an extended dream sequence poking at Glover’s character Earnest’s continuing neuroses.

Amazon itself seems at a loss to describe Guava Island, shot in secret last summer in Cuba. They bill it on Prime as an “Island thriller,” which… no. Yes, it takes place on an island. But it’s not a thriller.

Donald Glover as Childish Gambino as Deni Maroon in “Guava Island.”

Guava Island supposedly adds closing punctation to the surprising career of Childish Gambino, Glover’s hip-hop alter ego. The star says he’s retiring that part of his career, which is a shame, because in Guava Island, the parts when he opens his mouth to sing or moves his body to his own astoundingly-constructed beats and melodies are the ones that work best.

Gambino (long live Gambino) plays Deni Maroon, a musician beloved for the songs and ad jingles heard on transistor radios across the fictional island of Guava.

As explained in an animated introduction narrated by his longtime girlfriend Kofi Novia (Rihanna), Deni loves the people of the island and wouldn’t dream of leaving to seek his own fortune, unlike Kofi, who spends her days toiling over a sewing machine in a sweatshop.

Some of Deni’s ads are for Red Cargo, the catch-all company and villain of the same name played with amused, slow-burn malice by Nonso Anozie.

Red Cargo controls the island and doesn’t like the idea of a late-night music festival Deni is planning. Guava Island semi-dramatizes the day leading up to the show, when Deni must decide whether to cancel the concert under pressure from Red Cargo, who doesn’t want his workers sleeping off a Sunday instead of going back to work.

Like Atlanta and the episodes he directs of HBO’s Barry, director Murai excels at tone. The opening scenes uplift with sunny smiles and a leisurely flow, suggesting low stakes for the amiable, guitar-carrying Deni.

But with a confrontational re-staged version of “This Is America,” Guava Island starts to show that not all is well in paradise. Nobody’s really free. But, as Deni suggests, isn’t that the case everywhere?

The last third of the 55 minutes ratchet up that tension. Guava Island transforms from breezy musical showcase for Childish Gambino to a predictable Christ-figure story. Sadly, predictable doesn’t mean irrelevant. Glover released the project just as rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle was being laid to rest over the weekend.

I won’t blame Guava Island’s flaws on looks or pacing. Murai uses a square frame and washed-out, super-grainy film to place the story sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s, before cell phones, and before rap was a thing. It makes this version of “This Is America” feel a little out of place, but it mostly works.

But it miscalculates by not doubling down on the songs that, for only small doses, make Guava Island soar. The film truncates each of the musical numbers, or stages them in ways that minimize their impact. For some unimaginable reason, Rihanna doesn’t sing in the entire production. She underplays every scene as an object of desire, with seemingly little influence on Deni except as an inspiration for his love songs.

Gambino and Rihanna’s accents come and go throughout. It’s never really clear if Glover created Deni as a character to keep reminding us of his own talents or not. It’s sometimes hard to tell if we’re watching Donald Glover’s art or Donald Glover Making Art, another notch in his brilliantly-studded career belt.

But the biggest flaw with Guava Island isn’t even in the footage on Amazon Prime. It’s last year’s jaw-dropping “This Is America” video, shot during the same period, which in four minutes and four seconds has more impact, big ideas, and emotional resonance than 55 minutes of Guava Island. That version so steals the impact of Guava Island’s modest, less-impactful staging, that it makes you wonder why the Glovers and Murai didn’t use that as the jumping off point for something more bonkers.

There’s not much wrong with Guava Island itself, just the lingering idea that the staggering amount of talent involved could have made a stronger statement in an even bigger way, not something meant to be consumed between sets at Coachella or streamed on the couch while waiting for the Game of Thrones season premiere.

It’s something, at least.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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