Charles Fuller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for grappling with the moral complexities of “A Soldier’s Play” (which was turned into the Oscar-nominated “A Soldier’s Story” in 1984), contributes a disappointingly simplistic script to “Love Songs,” a trilogy of loosely interconnected vignettes. Nonetheless, it represents a chance for three actor-directors a rare opportunity to collaborate and experiment, and their work overall is laudable, though the title may appear to be a misnomer — only one of these stories is a romance, while the others concern familial love in a general fashion.
Set in and around an African American neighborhood, the film is structured in a fashion reminiscent of Showtime’s 1987 production “Riot,” in that the main characters of each story turn up as peripheral characters in the other tales. Unlike that earlier film, the commingling of characters and events here adds no greater resonance to the overall film — these characters’ brief appearances outside their own sagas feel more intrusive than inspired. More unfortunately, Fuller’s scenarios offer tidy, bland morals — one’s spirit is more important than money; it’s what’s inside a person that counts; violence isn’t always the answer.
First segment is “A Love Song for Champ,” directed by Louis Gossett Jr. and concerning an aspiring boxer (Robert Townsend, who looks a bit, well, soft for the role) struggling to keep himself and his pregnant wife (Rachel Crawford) financially solvent. He gets a chance to make some quick cash serving as a sparring partner for a hotheaded, talent-challenged boxer (Michael Anthony Rawlins), but there’s a major caveat — under no condition should he deck his opponent, who’s of course begging for such a comeuppance. The maudlin outcome is so lacking in tension that it merely registers a shrug from the viewer.
Things improve, slightly, with “A Love Song for Jean and Ellis,” directed by Townsend and buoyed by dynamic performances by Andre Braugher and Lynn Whitfield. Braugher plays Ellis, a fruit vendor with an eye for the elegant and beautiful Jean (Whitfield), who considers him beneath her. When Jean is attacked, she’s touched by Ellis’s concern and chivalry. Alas, the rest of their relationship, as portrayed here, feels arbitrarily concocted, and feminists may bristle at the implication that a woman needs a good man at her side to protect her. Still, Braugher and Whitfield have enough chemistry that one hopes they’ll be given a chance to work together again with material worthy of their talents.
Braugher makes an impressive directorial debut with the final piece, “A Love Song for Dad,” in which Gossett plays a stolid family man who must contend with the influence of roguish teens on his son (they — ulp! — swear and listen to hip-hop music) and his sister-in-law’s abusive husband. Artful camera work and editing convey the edgy atmosphere, and Gossett gives his upstanding character, which could easily be a one-note caricature, commendable depth. Again, the all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion isn’t the strongest, but at least the dilemma initially posed is more interesting than in the first two tales.
Tech credits are pro, particularly the soulful score by Ronnie Laws and Pete Anthony.