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'Guy And Madeline': A New Wave Spin On The Musical

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'Guy And Madeline': A New Wave Spin On The Musical


'Guy And Madeline': A New Wave Spin On The Musical

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Finally this hour, we're going to hear about a film that last year made critics' 10-best lists but did not make it into theaters. Well, now "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" is finally getting released. The critics called it a fresh blend of 1930s Hollywood musicals and the French New Wave of the 1960s. The movie was shot in black and white. Its director is just 25 years old, and Pat Dowell has our story.

PAT DOWELL: Damien Chazelle was a Harvard film student who quit to turn a class project into a feature-length musical. He says he wanted literally to combine documentary-style filmmaking with the classic musicals he spent hours watching at the Harvard Film Archive.

Mr. DAMIEN CHAZELLE (Film Director): The things about musicals that I liked the most had to do with the sense of spontaneity and the sense of, even though it's a very artificial genre, trying to root it in real life somehow, trying to kind of take these fantastical numbers out of very mundane everyday things.

DOWELL: Like, say, a girl named Madeline walking in a park and thinking of the boy who's dumped her.

(Soundbite of film, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) It happened at dawn. It happened in this park. A guy and girl had dallied 'til the moon was gone.

Mr. CHAZELLE: The idea for me was to really kind of use what I had around me, use Boston, use musicians who lived in Boston, not actors playing musicians but actual musicians and their actual day-to-day lives, use that as a kind of springboard for a full-fledged musical.

DOWELL: So his main character, Guy, he'd be the boy who dumped the girl, is a trumpet player played by Boston trumpet player Jason Palmer. He says Chazelle didn't give him a script, only a character sketch.

Mr. JASON PALMER (Actor): Now thats what Im talking about.

DOWELL: Then filmed him on the fly.

Mr. PALMER: It's like you never hear anybody blasting Coltrane, you know, or some Charlie Parker or some Billie Holiday or some Bach cantatas or, like, a Mahler symphony. You know, it's always (makes noises).

Oh, yeah, that was totally improvisatory.

DOWELL: Jason Palmer.

Mr. PALMER: I was hanging out with a friend of mine. We were in front of my apartment, and we were just talking, and he said: Okay, I'm just going to shoot, you guys hang out and we'll just see what we can get. And a lot of the movie was like that. There was no script in that regard. So whatever was said was pretty much off the cuff.

DOWELL: The unforced, matter-of-fact style of the movie is just one of the things that inspired critic Amy Taubin to write in Film Comment that "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" was the best undistributed film of 2009. In Artforum, she called it one of the year's best, period.

Ms. AMY TAUBIN (Film Critic): These are just people who are not actors but are very close to what their characters are supposed to be. Desiree Garcia, who plays Madeline, is a film professor who, interestingly, did her dissertation on '30s race musicals. There isn't that much dialogue, but their characters are very believable.

DOWELL: She also likes the score by Justin Hurwitz, played by a 90-piece orchestra, and what she calls an absolutely brilliant set piece that takes place in two small rehearsal rooms.

An after-hours party turns into a jam session with singers, tap dancers and a jazz combo in one room and the trumpeter next door answering phrase for phrase.

(Soundbite of film, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench")

(Soundbite of music)

DOWELL: Taubin says the camera seems like a character stuck at first in the hallway as it tries to catch the action in both rooms.

Ms. TAUBIN: The way it moves, the way it pans from door opening to door opening, sets the rhythm for the scene in a way that I just found all together remarkable.

(Soundbite of film, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DOWELL: Director Damien Chazelle, who is also cameraman and editor and lyricist, combined the chaos with careful planning. He invited friends to the party and plied the crowd with pizza and drink. The dancers and musicians, on the other hand, were rehearsed for months, he says. Then he filmed the scene over and over, each time in one long shot.

Mr. CHAZELLE: Six or seven takes all the way through, and I think the one you see is the last take, precisely because, you know, as the musicians would get more and more comfortable and more and more into their groove, the crowd around them would get drunker and drunker and drunker.

So by the end, you have a scene where I think the musicians all know exactly what they're doing, but the crowd has almost forgotten that there's a camera, and they're just, you know, having a good time.

DOWELL: As clearly was the director, who finds in the musical a microcosm of the profession he's chosen.

Ms. CHAZELLE: The thing that musicals are about, this idea of, you know, can we create a number, can we break into song, can we put on a show, are the same things that filmmakers ask when they start a movie.

It's about creativity; it's about expression. And I think it's something that has always made the genre feel very vital.

DOWELL: "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" survived two years in production. It screened at film festivals for more than a year, and now it's opened in New York, just in time for a new set of 10-best lists of films that have made it to a theater.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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