Co-directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob open their exquisite documentary Carmen & Geoffrey with a black-and-white clip of a 1950s dance performance by their title subjects, Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder. The husband-and-wife duo, roughly in their mid-twenties at the time, are gorgeous. Ridiculously sexy. While the tall, muscular Holder plays the smitten prey, de Lavallade is a smoldering vixen, cigarette holder between her lips and liquid motion in her hips. Holding her upper body almost still, she does a lower-body swivel and slow slide downward that is one of the sexiest things ever caught on film. And that’s before the opening credits even roll.
Holder is best known to mainstream audiences for his long-running 7-Up commercials and for his role as Nelson, the risqué ad man in 1992’s Boomerang, both of which prominently feature his trademark deep laugh. His wife—artistic partner and muse, de Lavallade—is deservedly revered in the world of dance but is nowhere near as widely known as her talent and accomplishments merit. Atkinson and Doob’s film is a multilayered corrective. It aims to retrieve Holder, a true renaissance artist, from the amusing but one-note public character into which his larger-than-life persona has been whittled, and to shine a light on de Lavallade’s own dazzling career. It does all that time and again, while making the very strong argument that pop culture as we know it would be markedly poorer had these two not broken the many grounds they did. (Their friends and professional collaborators include folks like Alvin Ailey, Josephine Baker, Truman Capote, and Duke Ellington.) But what really propels the film is the love story between its subjects. Cynics and romance pessimists beware: These are fairy-tale tropes played out in real-life dimensions.
While Atkinson and Doob are nothing more than straightforward, point-and-shoot craftsmen in their filming of de Lavallade, Holder, and talking heads—including the couple’s son, Judith Jamison, and New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning—the film (sometimes pointedly, but often in just a few spoken lines or seemingly offhand observations) captures a range of complex histories and dynamics: the still-potent sibling rivalry that courses through the love between Holder and his older brother, who wrote the templates for Holder’s own creative expression; de Lavallade’s laughing remark that girls from “nice families” (which hers was) didn’t go into the entertainment profession; the rage that cracks Holder’s otherwise serene and jovial demeanor when he speaks of the colonialist school system in which he learned as a boy in his home of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Those moments are interspersed with rare performance footage from film, theater, and TV that will make you drool not only for the images but for the seemingly endless depth and breadth of the couple’s talent. Carmen & Geoffrey is an unabashed love letter to its subject. It fawns and gushes. But it also makes a convincing case for its own adoration—it’s hard to not get caught up in the swoon.