‘Guava Island’ is the new musical model

April 24, 2019, 9:00 a.m.

Spoilers for “Guava Island” below.

Since its release at midnight last Saturday, I have watched Donald Glover’s feature short “Guava Island” at least seven times — one time for each day since then — and have come to the conclusion, through both my relative expertise on the film and my rabid fandom for Childish Gambino, that Glover has created another masterpiece.

The movie, which Glover wrote, produced and acted in, is yet another highlight in the artist’s multi-talented career and beautifully complements some of his latest musical releases as rapper and musician Childish Gambino. Yet Glover is no newcomer to the screen; he has previously appeared in box-office hits such as “Spider Man: Homecoming” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” as well as writing and producing shows like “30 Rock” and “Atlanta.”

As a musician, Gambino has produced three studio albums, three extended plays and seven mixtapes, of which “Because the Internet,” his breakout album in 2013, and “Awaken, My Love!” (which won a 2018 Grammy for the song “Redbone”) are the most popular.

More recently, Gambino won four Grammys at the latest award ceremony, taking home three for the critically acclaimed single “This is America.” Sometime this year, Glover plans to release his last album before retiring the name Childish Gambino to focus on writing and producing, ventures which he has already begun to pursue more in “Guava Island.”

Officially produced as a Childish Gambino film and premiered live at Coachella last weekend, the hour-long flick obscures the presumably thick line between movie and uber-extended music video by telling a story through and with his four latest singles, released over the course of the last 12 months: “This is America,” “Summertime Magic,” “Feels like Summer” and “Saturday.”

The Amazon Prime original features Glover himself, Rihanna and Letitia Wright, best known for her portrayal of Shuri in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Black Panther.” It’s a cast perfectly suited for capturing the intended summer island vibes through smiling, dancing and shimmying.

“Guava Island” takes place on the island of Guava, as we learn through the initial narration of Kofi (Rihanna). The island is controlled by the Red family, who exploit the land for its coveted cerulean silk, transforming what once was a paradisiacal wonderland into an industrial outpost.

Kofi then introduces her easygoing lover, Deni (Glover), who splits time between jobs as a musician for Red radio and as a worker at the Red cargo shipping docks. More than anything, Deni wants to bring joy to the islanders and he resolves to do so by hosting a festival for the locals as a celebration of Guava and its people.

The story seems simple enough, but like anything Glover produces, whether in his music or on “Atlanta,” there is much more to this feel-good tropical portrait than appears on the surface. Beyond the performances of Gambino’s toe-tapping summer hits are powerful messages about materialism, autocracy and death. Plus, the songs themselves, some of which have modified lyrics, elaborate on the artist’s underlying messages.

The first indication that Glover and director Hiro Murai intend to dig at something deeper occurs roughly 15 minutes into the movie. Deni arrives at the docks and is confronted by a coworker fantasizing about America, to which Deni responds, “America is a concept. Anywhere where, in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.”

The line provides a completely new context to Gambino’s hit single, “This is America,” into which Deni transitions. He critiques capitalism and how the people of Guava are essentially slaves under the whip of a big corporation. Through Deni, Glover adds a new, but equally relevant and powerful, message to a song that already won three Grammys.

Gambino’s remaining three singles all land perfectly, albeit each achieving a different end. “Summertime Magic” is the simplest of the bunch and captures its title exactly as Deni and Kofi dance together on the beach. Later, Deni plays “Feels Like Summer” over the radio, a particularly salient choice considering the song’s underlying message about global warming and the role Red Cargo likely plays in pollution.

The significance of the latter is easy to miss as the song can at first come off as simply a chill summer track playing on the radio. In fact, Glover may be trying to convey how global warming is widely broadcast, as the song is on the radio station, but people largely ignore its severity.

Deni closes with “Saturday”, an unreleased Childish Gambino track performed when he hosted Saturday Night Live last May, at the festival he has thrown for the whole island to give the people reprieve from their hard labor. He sings “Can’t take a break/Money is tight,” and, “Oh, my aching bones, they just keep killing me/Can’t afford to let them spend my dime,” returning to the theme of low-class workers being treated like servants.

When the song comes to an end, a henchman sent by Red tries to take Deni’s life and eventually shoots and kills him after a short chase. And of course, his death has meaning outside of its mere occurrence. Gambino has often played with themes of death, notably in his screenplay to his second official album, “Because the Internet.” (Gambino says in the last song on the album, “Life: The Biggest Troll,” “Funny the day you born that’s really your death sentence,” speaking to the inevitably of death.)

In Deni’s case, he took the risk of singing at the festival despite Red’s threats to him. He had a dream to make the island happy and he figured that if he did die, it would be on his own terms. Deni also ends up achieving his goal of getting the islanders a day off of work. They all gather in the streets to celebrate his life the next day.

With “Guava Island,” Glover has created the modern musical, a story told through music but breaking free from the sound of showtunes and generating a project that is simultaneously entertaining and socially relevant.

And it doesn’t stop there. Some fans speculate that Gambino’s upcoming album, which will be his last and mark his retirement from music, at least under this name, continues or retells the story of Guava Island. Of the four songs from the unreleased album Gambino has played on tour and at Coachella, all four appear to fit somewhere in the scheme of Guava. In particular, his song “Human Sacrifice” opens with, “Two shots and a body,” an apparent reference to Deni’s death at the end of the film.

Regardless of what Glover has in store for us, “Guava Island” is thoroughly enjoyable and yet another example of Glover living up to the title “Jack of all trades, master of all.”

I’m ready for the next album, Donald. And maybe throw in a pair of those shoes while you’re at it.

Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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