By Steve Sucato
If director Ryan McKinny’s film After/Glow were nothing visually but 50-minutes of blank screen to the soundtrack of countertenor John Holiday’s angelic voice singing Robert Schumann’s 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe (“A Poet’s Love”), that would still be reason enough to head to the Helio Arts website where the film is now streaming. Add to that new spoken word poems by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and an accompanying scripted story, and you have a contemporary window into the enduring beauty of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
Holiday, a native of Rosenberg, Texas and a 2020 finalist on NBC’s The Voice, has said he wants to inspire the next generation of opera singers. With After/Glow, he, and those involved with the film, could be inspiring the next generation of opera lovers as well.
Where Holiday’s renditions of Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit “All by Myself,” Beyoncé’s “Halo” and the jazz standard “Fly Me to the Moon” on The Voice surprised and delighted the show’s judges and viewers, as an opera singer he is truly in his element. In After/Glow, co-produced by Helio Arts and Drax Productions, we get Holiday the opera singer along with him as an actor. The film is an audio and visual reimagining of Schumann’s 16 song cycle with lyrics from German poet Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo (1822-23).
Heine’s poems of love, nature, heartache, and despair, were augmented by Joseph’s new poems for the film that were inspired by Heine’s. They were delivered on camera by him with rhythmic spoken-word cadence and genuine feeling. Those elements of music and poetry then informed the scripted love story between two male characters portrayed by Holiday and actor DeMario Adams.
The film cut between scenes of Holiday at the piano singing and playing (with text translations of the song lyrics scrolling onscreen), Joseph reciting his poetry, and an idealized romance between Holiday and Adams in which the two men are seen riding in Holiday’s Porche convertible, exchanging loving gazes, picnicking, and checking into a log cabin getaway to make love in a sensual, yet PG scene.
As the film progressed and Schumann’s songs turned from telling of loving bliss to that of heartache, it is revealed that Holiday’s character is involved in a love triangle. DeMario Adams’s character is apparently also romantically involved with a woman (Eboni Adams), who is friends with both men. That revelation then leads to Holiday having a fitful dream of DeMario and Eboni getting married and him being haunted by scenes of their happiness, a vision he feels should have been his and DeMario’s.
“A philanderer flirts with monogamy,” says Joseph in one of his most engaging onscreen appearances. [He] “Mentally tosses the idea around his anatomy, digs in his heels, interrogates his soul, revisits his role, his performance of manhood, the idea growing between his thighs and his mind.”
As if both men were channeling Joseph’s words, in a scene gathering the love triangle’s participants at the cabin, Holiday, instead of dwelling on the emotional torment of this other relationship between DeMario and Eboni, gives in to it, and the film shows the trio coming together in a ménage à trois.
Guilt and drinking then follow for Holiday’s character who afterward is shown in a field of wildflowers lashing out and ripping flowers from the ground as he cried out in hurt and anguish.
The film ended with Holiday’s character breaking up with DeMario’s and him racing off in his Porche, only to be seen next lying still in a vast green field, dressed in his finest, arms crossed and clutching a black rose suggesting his death. The camera then cuts to DeMario and Eboni together sobbing at his loss outside a hospital.
“We die to become love in all directions,” says Joseph in his final heartfelt onscreen appearance.
As a film, After/Glow’s scripted story — albeit reflecting sentiments in Heine’s poetry — proved cliché and the acting of it, mediocre. While there were several captivating scenes of nature sprinkled throughout the film, courtesy of cinematographers Ryan and Tonya McKinny, its strengths, and what make it worth seeing, were the inspired performances of Holiday as singer/pianist and that of poet Joseph. Those remain as the true afterglow to this beautiful, if slightly flawed, film that brings Schumann’s Dichterliebe to life and Holiday’s love of opera to audiences in a unique way.
After/Glow is available exclusively at helioarts.com, a new online platform at the nexus of film and the performing arts, for $9.99 (1-year access) or as part of a recurring subscription service fee.