Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Producer: Jasmine McGlade
Starring: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Country: United States
Running time: 82min
Combining the intimate, grainy B&W aesthetic of early John Cassavettes with the exuberance of Jacques Demy and an original jazz score seems like kind of a tough sell, but first-time director Damien Chazelle has managed to do just that with a shoestring budget, guerrilla-style shooting, and a cast of non-actors.
Guy is a promising young jazz trumpeter in Boston who had a relationship with the winsome Madeline. After they break up, she plans to go to New York, taking a job as a waitress in a diner in the meantime, while he pursues a relationship with another girl, Elena. But before long it becomes clear that Elena is not interested in Guy’s music, and in fact, is quickly annoyed by it and his musical friends, and Guy tries to reconnect with Madeline. There you go, that’s the story.
What makes the film memorable is the use of music and the aggressively intimate camera style. The former I loved, and the later I kind of wish had been less pronounced. The film shines when focused on music – an impromptu tap dance battle at a party, Madeline breaking into song in the middle of a park or at work (where she’s joined by the rest of the staff as backup dancers), Guy’s mesmerizingly beautiful trumpet solos. Chazelle’s film doesn’t apologize for being a musical, doesn’t try to make its numbers “realistic,” though the film surrounding them is almost cinema verite in style – they just happen, in the moment, as Demy’s do in the middle of The Young Girls of Rochefort or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It’s one of the strengths of the film, as is the perfect ending, which stops exactly where it should without resorting to the extended denouments that so many filmmakers tack on.
In fact, the film could’ve used with more moments of musical exuberance and a little less hand-held close-up shakycam. I’m not one to dislike a film solely because of shakycam, and there are times when it works quite well. But Chazelle uses it nearly all the time in this film, partially I think because he was shooting without permits and had to quickly grab what footage he could, often in close quarters (such as a subway scene, where the close-ups do work). By the end, though, I was beginning to get enough of a headache from it that the film started to lose me a little bit. I think it will play better on TV than from the fifth row, so I didn’t really dock my star rating very much for that.
The only other argument against the film is really the fact that it’s so easily tied to its influences (Cassavetes, Demy, New Wave, possibly a bit of Mumblecore) that it’s a little bit derivative. Personally, I enjoy all those styles enough that I don’t mind people drawing on them, and if anyone else wants to make a B&W jazz musical that draws on 1960s influences, I’ll be there for that one, too, and I bet I’ll enjoy it. I do think Guy and Madeline will stand a little bit apart due to the strength of its non-actors, who all turn in very good performances despite their inexperience. Jason Palmer actually is a jazz musician in Boston, while Desiree Garcia is an academic (studying musicals) with no intention to act any more. So the opportunity to see them do such a good job in this film feels like quite a treat.