A review of "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," a charming, if sometimes too understated, black-and-white musical by young filmmaker Damien Chazelle.
A breezy musical-ette filmed in soft black and white, Damien Chazelle’s “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” is a low-key charmer — that is, sometimes it’s charming and sometimes it’s just low-key.
Originally conceived as 25-year-old Chazelle’s senior thesis, the film is the loosely told tale of a Boston jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and the woman (Desiree Garcia) with whom he has a brief relationship, ending when he meets somebody else (Sandha Khin).
It features, throughout the narrative, several musical numbers, ranging from an introspective solo sung in a park to a full-out tap-dance extravaganza in an empty restaurant.
And whenever “Guy and Madeline” becomes a musical, it soars. Chazelle (who also wrote the lyrics for the film’s songs, composed by Jason Hurwitz) understands the appeal of song-and-dance, and of a romantically old-school orchestral score. His musical scenes simply flow organically from the nonmusical ones: Madeline, in the park, begins singing, in a way that nobody does in the gritty, nonglamorous real life that this movie otherwise reflects. It’s dazzling, as is the loose-limbed joy of the tap sequences — as if a door suddenly opens for these characters, letting them become expressive and alive.
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What Chazelle isn’t able to do, though — not yet, anyway — is to create people we care about when they’re not singing, and here things go doubly wrong: The characters (particularly the women, who seem to have no personalities at all) are written so casually they barely exist, and Chazelle chose nonactors for the two lead roles. (Palmer is a real-life trumpeter, Garcia a film historian; neither had acted before.) Perhaps more charismatic performers could have done something with the dialogue, but “Guy and Madeline” sags badly as soon as the music stops; it’s hard to sustain much interest in what happens to these vaguely sketched, disaffected people.
But the film is a pleasure to look at, with its shots of an often magical Boston (in one scene, loose papers fly lazily over the sidewalk, like relaxed birds), and the musical score and the jazz played by Palmer are immensely appealing.
“Guy and Madeline,” as a work in progress by a young filmmaker, is quite promising, and I love that Chazelle is trying something like this. Remember his name.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org