Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants a background score from the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra.
"…boldly recasts the 1940s MGM musical tradition in a gritty, verite style…"
Director Damien Chazelle says he was "trying to smash two things together—sort of jittery doc-style footage with the kind of music I loved from old musicals." The result, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, is a low-budget project filmed in black-and-white over two years. Is it a smash hit or a train wreck?
Facts of the Case
Actually, it's just Madeline (Desiree Garcia) on the bench, after a split. Soon, Madeline's off in New York, working at a seafood place. Guy (Jason Palmer) is back in Boston, playing gigs and missing Madeline. Eventually, he'll head for New York, too.
There are a few out-and-out musical numbers in Guy and Madeline, most notably "Boy in the Park," in which Madeline and her Summer Shack co-workers break out into song and tap. There are also some nods to a musical sort of reality, as when wind-blown papers follow Madeline up a street to a nice instrumental background.
Mostly, though, Guy and Madeline aims for a more realistic tone. It's realism that involves a jazz musician, Guy, so there's always plenty of music around. When someone breaks into song at a party and the other guests join in the jam, you'll find yourself feeling like it could actually happen. It's full of rehearsals and performances, all shot with loving closeups on the musicians. Only "Boy in the Park," has the staged feel of a classic musical; at other times, Desiree Garcia barely seems to notice the camera. The dialogue is delivered naturally, so that she and Jason Palmer sound like people you might meet in real life. There are times when you could actually feel like you're hanging out with jazz musicians, and that's a good feeling.
The black-and-white cinematography, meant to create that "gritty, verite style" the DVD case boasts about, can be self-conscious. It does the job, though, showcasing Jason and the other musicians in the movie and the atmosphere in which they work and create. You'll also get a lot of grain and some flecks; it seems to be part of director Damien Chazelle's vision rather than signs of a damaged print, although he acknowledges a few mistakes here and there in his commentary.
An ample but apparently incomplete selection of deleted scenes shows that a lot of dialogue and subplots got axed. That's a big change, apparently transforming Guy and Madeline from a dialogue-driven movie into a music-driven one—both a good and bad thing. Excising subplots improves the flow, but at times losing the relationship dialogue in the main plot leaves you a little confused. That means you have to watch and pay attention. You'll get an occasional line that tells you what's going on, but you'll have to be alert when eyes meet on a commuter train or Madeline struggles to write a letter to Guy.
Although the movie revolves around music, ambient noise is also important to Guy and Madeline, capturing the feel of the cities—New York and Boston—in which the story takes place. The music and sounds come across well, but, as in real life, an occasional line of dialogue can be lost in all the background noise.
In the commentary, director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz talk about the challenges of making a movie on a shoestring that has to double as an instrument. It seems the music did drive the finished product quite a bit: working with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, which didn't have much experience with jazz; changing a character by dropping her musical number; and movie musicals of all eras. Even the final "journey" of the two leads is about song. Chazelle also discusses the influence of his learn-as-you-go approach to moviemaking and his habit of sneaking up on the actors when they didn't know they were being filmed. It's an engaging look at low-budget filmmaking.
In addition to deleted scenes and commentary, you get sound bites on the creative process as "Boy in the Park" is composed and a trailer, which centers around a musical number and evokes those MGM musicals a lot more than the movie does. There's also a commentary booklet by Amy Taubin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I said, a story told mostly in song and images can be hard to follow. If you're intrigued, you'll end up watching at least twice—once to pick up on the story, another time just to listen to the music.
While it draws on documentary-style filmmaking and musicals, Guy and Madeline turns out to be an experiment in sound. There aren't many words, but there's always music or urban noise. It puts you into the environment of Guy and Madeline, making their story more realistic and interesting. At the same time, it showcases music, both Jason Palmer's instrumental work and Desiree Garcia's singing.
Director Damien Chazelle clearly is fascinated with music. If you share that fascination, you ought to see Guy and Madeline.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
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