Director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s “Summertime” creates a mosaic of pre-COVID Los Angeles (it was filmed in 2019) through words, action, dance and music. The usual movie musical building blocks, in other words. But not in the usual way.
This is a spoken-word poetry musical, made with more than two dozen members of LA’s “Get Lit” collective. If you saw Estrada’s previous feature, the 2018 “Blindspotting,” you may recall the daring leap that bracing slice-of-life took at the climax, when the prison parolee played by “Hamilton” alum Daveed Diggs confronted a policeman with a violent, eloquent barrage of slam poetry. “Summertime” takes that idea and runs with it.
Beginning in Venice Beach, the film hands off its loose narrative from one character or set of characters to another, in the rangy way of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” or Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in more of a hurry.
This is the romanticized City of Angels not explored by “La La Land.” The dreamers and strivers in “Summertime” (too many to recount) include Tyris, played by Tyris Winter, whose day is spent Yelping restaurant reviews and looking for a simple burger amid a sea of restaurants peddling $15 whatzits on toast.
A couples counseling session featuring Anna Osuna and Walter Finnie Jr. makes clever use of the verbal spats in rap-battle context, as the pair processes the feedback they’re getting from a therapist whose practical advice includes: “No side hos for either of ya!” Across town, a barely promising rap duo (Bryce Banks and Austin Antoine) peddles their mixtape and makes plans for their stardom; in Koreatown, a restaurant kitchen becomes an inter-generational dance party.
It’s intentionally all over the place. Some of the poems are true grabbers, fierce and beautiful; others settle for a more familiar set of sentimental descriptions of LA as the place where “crazy dope magic happens” each day, and everyone — graffiti artists, limo drivers, the heartbreakers and the heartbroken — carries that old accessory, “a pocketful of dreams.” The entire speaking cast contributed to the script, which was given some structure by Dave Harris and director Estrada. (Kelly Marie Tran executive produced.)
It works, because Estrada’s filmmaking smarts are more than enough to dodge the pitfalls. He’s a witty stylist with alert comic timing; one sharp, quick bit early on, a collision between a roller-skating guitarist (Olympia Miccio) and a bunch of bikers posing for a photo, leads to an awkwardly timed selfie that’s truly funny. The musical genre can handle just about anything. “Summertime” expresses familiar sentiments in some fresh and vital ways, and keeps the dreams alive.
3 stars (out of 4)
Rating: R (for language throughout and sexual references)
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Now in theaters
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