On Friday night, Donald Glover gave the world a visionary concert. Performing at Coachella as his musical alter ego Childish Gambino, the 35-year-old multi-hyphenate didn’t just deliver a terrific show — he gave us an enrapturing, emotional, dynamic experience that included everything from laughs to tears to profound reflection. During one quiet interlude between songs, he told the crowd that he was thinking about the tragic recent deaths of Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle, as well as the passing of his long-supportive father. Not surprisingly, he was in a heavy, philosophical frame of mind. “There’s a hundred thousand of you out here right now,” he said. “There’s a chance, there’s a good chance, that at least one of y’all won’t see next week. So what I’m saying is, while you’re here, while we’re here … feel something and pass it on.”
Glover more than held up his end of the bargain, providing the Coachella faithful (and all the people like me watching at home on YouTube) the kind of transcendent performance that, quite simply, makes life worth living. It wasn’t simply the quality of the songs — indelible hits like “Redbone,” “Sober” and “Feels Like Summer” — but also the inventiveness of the show’s design and conception that were magnetic.
Early on, dressed in his customary white pants and no shirt, rocking a full, wild beard, he demanded the crowd put down their phones. “This is not a concert,” he passionately declared. “This is church. If you came here to hear your favorite song, you should go home and do that. If you came here to just take Instagram pictures and shit, you should go in the back and move right now. I want y’all to feel this.” Such is Glover’s cultural clout — thanks in large part to his zeitgeist-y channeling of national strife in “This Is America” and the Emmy-winning brilliance of Atlanta, a hard-to-characterize comedy-drama hybrid that could just as easily been called This Is America, too — that his request was largely obeyed by the Coachella throngs. People stopped filming because they wanted to see what one of the planet’s hottest talents was going to do next.
Deftly shot so as to incorporate both intimacy and scale, the concert was one of the most gloriously sustained expressions of creative exuberance I’ve seen in a long time. Lots of artists can be great actors or songwriters, but few can do both. Even fewer can seem transformational in both guises. Watching Glover perform with his tight, fluid band, which expertly moved from funk to soul to rock ‘n’ roll, I felt lucky. These kinds of hot streaks are extraordinary to witness, but they don’t last, so I wanted to savor it. Over the last few years, Glover has seemingly done no wrong while making some of the best work in the world. In a show that was as much about how fleeting life is as it was a celebration of artistry and being alive, Glover made it seem like his hot streak would go on forever. That’s an illusion, of course — the same one plenty of other red-hot artists once wove. But it’s an illusion that we want to stay in as long as we can.
On Saturday night, Donald Glover reminded us what happens with all hot streaks: Eventually, they end. His 55-minute film Guava Island, which became available on Amazon this weekend, is far from a debacle. Directed by his Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai and written by Glover’s brother Stephen (another frequent Atlanta coconspirator), this Caribbean excursion — part extended music video, part cultural commentary, part beautiful travelogue — came bearing the same kind of secret-project/surprise-release excitement that greeted his unveiling of the “This Is America” video the same night he performed on Saturday Night Live. After the Emmy and Grammy wins, Guava Island’s unveiling was always going to be a major event. That it’s merely mediocre is hardly a tragedy. But if all hot streaks have to end, this film illustrates one classic example of how they do — not with a bang but an underwhelming whimper of hubris.
As with Atlanta, Guava Island isn’t a tightly plotted affair: Atmosphere and ideas trump story. Glover plays Deni, a struggling musician who’s putting together a festival for his island neighbors that night. (The movie is set on a fictional, impoverished isle but was shot in Cuba.) Deni and his childhood sweetheart Kofi (Rihanna), who toils as a seamstress, are very much in love, but she’s got a surprise for him: She’s pregnant. Before he can learn this happy news, though, Deni is confronted by Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), an intimidating, thuggish business owner who threatens dire consequences if the festival isn’t canceled. (Red doesn’t want his employees missing work tomorrow because they were at the concert.) In between plot points, Deni breaks into recent Childish Gambino hits, including a slightly reworked “This Is America,” although the breezy “Feels Like Summer” and “Summertime Magic” more accurately capture the film’s laidback, sun-splashed vibe.
It’s a strange phenomenon of superstar musicians that, as famous as they are and how ubiquitous their image is in our culture, they often seem astoundingly awkward when they’re acting. In theory, the two modes shouldn’t be that different — performer and actor — but in practice, they really are. As talented as Prince was, he never quite pulled off being a leading man: Even in Purple Rain, he’s pretty wooden when he’s not on stage. Michael Jackson had numerous hits, but if you sat through Captain EO or Moonwalker, you remember how unconvincing he was as anybody other than himself. There are exceptions — André Benjamin was terrific in both Jimi: All Is by My Side and the new High Life, and Janelle Monáe did good work in Hidden Figures — but there’s something anxious and needy about musicians when they start emoting in a drama. Because it’s not their skill set, superstars simply fall back on their hunger to be adored. It’s not as if actors don’t want to be worshiped too, but, well, they’re actors and can at least hide it a little better.
Glover’s one of those happy exceptions, constantly seguing from actor to writer to stand-up to musician throughout his career. (He wrote for 30 Rock and was one of the stars of Community.) He might not be as great an actor as his Atlanta costars, a murderers’ row of ace performers, but he’s comfortable on screen, ably playing Earn, a going-nowhere guy trying to find his purpose. But after soaking in his full magnificence at Coachella, I was a little bummed to see him do what’s essentially a better version of a Moonwalker in Guava Island.
In the past few years, we’ve become accustomed to the visual album, in which a generational talent like Kanye West, Beyoncé or Janelle Monáe ties an overriding narrative to a collection of songs. These new visual albums are simply a smarter, better-shot version of the 1980s concepts that Prince and Michael Jackson pursued in order to feed their ambitions to be movie stars. (And it’s hardly a new ambition: You could tie the whole trend back to the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night.) But whether it’s now or then, the nagging limitation of these visual albums is that they rarely work as actual movies. They’re often very fun musically, but they require the uneasy superstar musician to struggle as an actor until he’s able to get to his next song. Frequently, you just want to fast-forward through the talking to get to the singing.
Guava Island may be less than an hour, but I nonetheless found myself fighting the urge to zip ahead. The film’s story isn’t particularly great, and while it connects to themes Glover has explored on Atlanta — specifically, how art fights to sustain itself in a capitalist society, and how life feels for the underprivileged on a daily basis — it’s expressed in familiar ways. Whether it’s Purple Rain or Moonwalker or Monáe’s Dirty Computer visual album, the typical setup is that the superstar plays a lowly everyman/woman who’s secretly an artistic genius/societal revolutionary who must triumph over an unfeeling, powerful status quo. Guava Island is too lighthearted to be as self-serious as some of those other works, but that’s essentially its M.O., too, casting Glover as a humble man of the people who will lift his brothers and sisters’ spirits through his pleasing tunes. (Tellingly, Rihanna doesn’t sing during Guava Island: This is Glover’s showcase, which means she’s reduced to being the supportive lover who’s charmed by his lovable antics.)
I won’t reveal how Guava Island plays out, but while it subverts the formula a little, the story ultimately lands in the same place as a lot of these musician-driven visual projects, anointing the star as some sort of cultural hero worth worshiping. Guava Island is a fairly modest affair — it feels like Glover taking a breath, as opposed to gearing himself up for another major artistic statement — and its musical interludes are all solid enough. But it’s the first time in the last few years in which Glover’s ego seemed more prominent than his vision. There’s a just-fucking-around quality — a self-satisfied victory-lap tone — to the film, and although it’s never noxious, it also never exudes the sense of excitement that can be generated by an ambitious artist lustily chasing after a new challenge. The Coachella concert was a revelation; Guava Island is mostly a footnote.
Last year, Glover appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and the host asked him why he didn’t play a rapper on Atlanta, instead choosing to play a down-on-his-luck aspiring manager. After all, Colbert pointed out, Glover is a rapper. “That would have been wack to me [to play a rapper],” Glover said, later adding, “It just didn’t feel cool to me to actually make music and then make a show — I don’t think anybody wants a show about ‘making it.’”
The embarrassed look on Glover’s face articulated what his words didn’t: No matter how much ego he might have — and all artists have a healthy supply — he’s often been ambivalent about success, distrustful of what “making it” even means. I’ve argued before that this is precisely what Atlanta is about, which is why it was no surprise that, after all the accolades the show received for Season One, Glover and his creative team reacted to the acclaim by making the characters even unhappier during the follow-up season. For Glover, “making it” is a trap and a bore.
Weirdly, though, Guava Island could be read as “a show about ‘making it.’” It’s the sort of vanity project you only really get away with because you’ve engendered so much good will with your rapt audience. And hey, more power to Glover, who’s certainly earned his victory lap — albeit one that’s in a film that acknowledges systemic economic inequality and preaches the importance of the working class rising up against its oppressors. Guava Island isn’t in spitting distance of an Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s notoriously self-absorbed big-screen fiasco. He remains a marvelously talented, grounded dude.
But the juxtaposition between his stupendous Coachella show and the very average Guava Island ends up underlining the point he made at his concert. Life is fleeting, but so is the ability to be on top of the world creatively. I’m still down for anything Donald Glover has in store, but I also remembered this weekend that, like all mortal men, his brilliance is hardly indestructible.
Here are three other takeaways from Guava Island.
#1. Remember when Rihanna was in Battleship?
With a few exceptions, Rihanna has avoided the acting bug to focus on music. But she was in Ocean’s 8 and was one of the best parts of the unfortunate Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s a shame she’s mostly playing Beautiful and Supportive Girlfriend No. 1 in Guava Island, but the film’s tropical setting did make me think back to her first major big-screen role. What, you forgot she was in Battleship?
First of all, let me come clean: I do not hate Battleship. I find its brand of dumb-dumb action spectacle to be superior to Michael Bay’s. That said, I always felt bad for Rihanna, who’s basically left to her own devices as one of the Navy crew members who must save Earth from gnarly aliens. She’s not bad, per se, but listen: If any of us were world-famous pop stars and then suddenly were told, “Okay, so, like, now play a weapons expert,” we’d probably struggle, too. Still, Rihanna did her best to be a convincing badass.
I was especially impressed with her willingness to go through the nonsense that studios inflict on actors in blockbuster movies. I’m not talking about the grueling action sequences or the arduous physical training. No, I mean doing promotional bits like this:
By comparison, she was probably happy to just chill in Cuba for a few weeks and not do much while making Guava Island.
#2. Get to know the music videography of Hiro Murai.
Atlanta has provided a career boost for just about everybody on the show, but because he’s behind the camera, Hiro Murai might not be as well known. He’s directed several installments of the series, including the spectacular “Teddy Perkins” episode, and received Emmy nominations for his work. Since then, he’s also directed episodes of Barry, as well as Guava Island, but for years, he was a sought-out video director. If that part of his oeuvre is less familiar to you, here’s a quick recap of some of his highlights.
I’m going to skip the “This Is America” video, which I assume you’ve seen at this point. Instead, let’s see how he zips between genres.
For instance, in 2014, he directed “Smooth Sailing” for Queens of the Stone Age. The video found frontman Josh Homme playing a businessman on a trip that gets more and more bizarre.
If you want to see how Murai brings a little flair to what could have been a straightforward performance video, let me recommend his 2009 clip for Raphael Saadiq’s “Staying in Love.”
Looking for a hint of the surrealism that he’d bring to Atlanta? Try “Cheerleader,” the 2012 video from St. Vincent, which finds a visually clever way of articulating the strangeness of being a performer in the public eye.
As of yet, Murai hasn’t made a feature film, but that doesn’t seem far off. “Features are certainly something that I’m looking at, something that I’ve always wanted to do,” he said last summer. “But I think I’m more driven by what’s interesting to me in the moment. Whether it’s a TV show or a music video, the seed of the idea is what’s driving my decisions, not the format or the outcome.”
Makes sense. Besides, his music videos have all the drama and cinematic sweep of a good movie, as witnessed by this clip he made for the Shins.
#3. Childish Gambino got his start on Sick Boi.
On his recent albums and singles, Childish Gambino has largely moved away from hip-hop to explore other styles. So it can be a bit of a shock to hear his early stuff now and think back to when he was primarily a rapper. 2010’s Culdesac is most people’s entry point, but if you haven’t heard his first mixtape, 2008’s Sick Boi, it’s available right here:
Like a lot of first albums, Sick Boi is a portrait of the artist as he’s still trying to figure out his style and persona. But even here, we hear the conversational, self-deprecating, funny guy who’s already got his sights set on stardom. The beats aren’t as epic as they would be on Culdesac — and the sound is vastly different than 2016’s Awaken, My Love!, which gave the world “Redbone” — but it’s striking how confident he sounds at this early stage.
Near the end of “I’m a Winner,” Glover says, “Thank you for listening to the Gambino experience — or should I say ‘experiment.’” The experiment is still reaping great rewards.