There is a spoken ode to Los Angeles at the start of the film Summertime. A pulsating score and a shot over the Pacific Ocean give way to images that illustrate “La Overture,” a poem written and read by Mila Cuda:
This morning the sewer water smells like butterscotch and I found a beetle flattened into the concrete of Koreatown.
Scooter versus scarab, squashed skidmarks shattering emerald green
And on the escalator leading down to the 7th St. Metro pigeons paint the handrails splattering off-white. Flocks lost, in the underground ecosystem of delayed train traffic and disappearances.
But my sure step says, “Not me, not today” And my sure step says, “Sure you could ask me for directions.”
It’s true, I do know my way around this angel angst town, with all its ins and outs and In-N-Outs, all the creatures hidden in crevices gone off track
And when your phone map fails to find home wait for the bus by a grate that pushes up a hell of hot green gray air.
You’re already there, having a Marilyn Monroe moment in the exquisite stink spreading from the sidewalk’s underbelly.
And the truth is, the silver line is my favorite sweat brigade.
But when the rush-hour crowd is too, too much I turn the music up
Los Angeles, I am not lonely with you, my love.
The wires cutting through the smog wrap themselves around my skittish heart till I am electrocuted by your current, stargazing on the boulevard beneath a pair of tangled sneakers, watching all the winged dreams around me scribble footnotes in our city story.
The film’s director, Carlos López Estrada, has created music videos for Billie Eilish, Katy Perry, and many others. In Summertime, he weaves a tapestry out of spoken word poetry and music, creating a freely associative narrative on love, loss, music and friendship. His collaborators were 21 ethnically and sexually diverse young poets. Their monologues — filled with anger, humor, and heartbreak — were inspired by the poets’ lives. The pieces were the result of workshops at GetLit, which describes its mission as “fusing classic and spoken word poetry to increase teen literacy … providing a creative outlet, community, and real-life work experience, transforming students into activists, scholars, and stars.”
Tyris Winter, a stick-thin young gay black poet with a substantial Afro, walks through most of the film’s scenes, providing a thread of continuity. In his poem “Ode to Yelp” he complains about the overpriced menu and meager portions in an upscale restaurant. Later, walking down the street, he films himself reciting “Home Part 2,” a confessional piece about growing up gay. A passenger on a bus (Mila Cuda) furiously responds to a passenger who is offended by seeing two gay women kissing in public. This poem, “Hey, I’m Gay” is a ferocious tirade against small-mindedness. Marquesha Babers performs “Shallow” as she tells off an ex-boyfriend who has body-shamed her. Teary eyed, she confronts prejudices that demean Black femininity and beauty. In “Red Lipstick,” a Latina daughter (Paolina Acuña-Gonzalez) is lunching with her mother in an outdoor café: she defends her dress and makeup against her mother’s criticisms. Suddenly, a car drives by, honks its horn, and the driver yells a sexist remark at the Spanish waitress, who is dressed in bright red. She turns, walks into the street and mounts the hood of the car, confronting the guy. A troupe of women — all in red — appear from nowhere, surround the auto, and break into a vibrant dance of resistance. This scene is Summertime’s only use of choreography.
What is startling is that each interlude features a poem that naturally evolves out of an everyday conflict. Each recitation fits neatly into the narrative, yet each is somehow surprising. Despite the artificiality of the premise, Estrada links the film’s episodes together via a kind of seamless magical realism: each moment smoothly leads to the next, each accelerates toward a powerful resolution. A monologue will break up a dialogue; some poems are sudden eruptions of emotional revelation. Sharp directing and smart editing keep everything in balance: the score, music, poems, the rambling story line, multiple characters, and varied locations.
The poem “Overture,” transcribed above, is a compendium of the challenges faced by the film’s characters: the hardship of being an outsider (“flocks lost, in the underground ecosystem of delayed train traffic and disappearances”);the difficulty of sexuality and friendships (“it’s true, I do know my way around this angel angst town, with all its ins and outs and In-N-Outs“); the desire for family and community (“your phone map fails to find home, wait for the bus by a grate that pushes up a hell of hot green gray air“); trying to live authentically in a city of dreams (“you’re already there, having a Marilyn Monroe moment in the exquisite stink spreading from the sidewalk’s underbelly“); the search for self-worth (“watching all the winged dreams around me scribble footnotes in our city story“).
The expanse of the Pacific, which began the film, is contrasted with the infinity of a night sky in the final scene. Through a number of witty (and circuitous) plot twists, Summertime’s ensemble is gathered together, looking over the sparkling lights of the city in the evening. A chauffeur (Raul Hererra), who has not previously been heard from, slowly begins his poem “Clouds”: “I think I’m headed toward the clouds. Yeah, I’m headed towards the clouds. I gotta pocketful of dreams and no one’s holding me down …” Alert with hope and possibility, the camera inches in on his face as he recites. It is a stunning conclusion.