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Tribeca Takes: Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (TFF 2009) is a strikingly original musical set in Boston's jazz scene. Naturally, we asked for his Top Five Movie Musical Moments.

Guy and Madeline on a park bench


When it comes to the dear dirty town of Boston on film, as of late, there's only been one archetype—it's a playground for criminals and derelicts, Irish-Americans tied to the street and the town. It's completely limiting. Part of the magic, and there's definitely magic, in Damien Chazelle's debut film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, is the way that the tyro director reimagines the city as a place of black-and-white swooning romance, where a young jazz trumpeter, Guy, (Jason Palmer, a real-life jazz trumpeter) and a searching young woman named Madeline (Desiree Garcia) connect, disconnect, and slowly come back into each other's arms. The film—which, impressively, is an original musical pulled off on a non-existent budget—manages to be a strikingly original tribute to the old MGM musicals, with the grit and realness of John Cassavettes or Jean-Luc Godard.


After premiering at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival to a slew of adoring reviews, Guy and Madeline has been quite the stepping stone for Chazelle, who lives and works out in Los Angeles. Just last week, Variety reported on his spec screenplay sale, an impressive feat in a tight market. Tribeca asked Chazelle to give us his top five movie musical moments, a list that's a true peek into the elements and inspirations that make Guy and Madeline tick.



1. It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, Drunken dance)


A trio of war buddies stumble out of a bar, plastered beyond belief, and start wreaking havoc on the streets. To me, this is the Arthur Freed unit at its best. So much virtuosity—dancing, scoring, choreographing, and shooting—in order to convey drunkenness. That’s the irony of the Hollywood musical in a nutshell: an entire machinery of technique at work, and yet it all looks so effortless. When you watch this scene, you see a bunch of kids making use of the props they find—trash can lids, in particular. (This is Stomp decades before Stomp.) You see sheer, unbridled joy, manic joy, delirious joy, let loose on a nighttime cityscape. And it’s all the more poignant when you think of it in context: this movie is basically the sour sequel to On the Town, and these three buddies (played by Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and the great choreographer Michael Kidd) are dancing out their last dance together. And the movie’s just beginning. Forget the happy ending: this late Comden-and-Green musical, directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, is the closest the Freed unit ever got to tragedy. Watch this display of pure happiness, uncomplicated by the outside world—quintessential MGM, really—and then consider that it’s the last such display you’ll see in the whole movie. There’s a darkness creeping around the corner in every frame: It’s Always Fair Weather wasn’t so much the swan song to the classic Hollywood musical as the death-knell. And I just love it.



2. Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933, last scene)


First, here’s the gist of the story. After a fight with her lover—the Mayor of New York—a rich woman decides to kill herself. She jumps into the lake in Central Park. A bum rescues her. When the woman wakes up, she’s forgotten who she is. She and the bum fall madly in love: he’s her prince, she his princess. But there’s a hitch: the bum is buddies with the Mayor, and when he realizes who the woman is, he feels compelled to bring the Mayor to see her. As soon as the woman lays eyes on the Mayor, her memory floods back—and all at once the bum is just a bum. “Who is that man?” she asks the Mayor. “Make him go away. He’s scaring me.” The way Lewis Milestone—a great, underrated director—tells this story rivals Chaplin. And the final scene, when the woman remembers who she is, is as heartbreaking as anything in City Lights. Yes, this is a musical—an Al Jolson musical, with rhyming dialogue and a score by Rodgers and Hart—but in the final scene, the musical number happens in the distance, away from our characters. Across street from where the bum, Mayor, and woman are congregated, a bunch of couples are dancing by a window. We can see them in the background, and we can hear their music. Milestone fixes his camera on Jolson’s face, as he hears the words of the woman he loves—“Who is that man?” Just behind him, we can make out the silhouettes of those happy dancers. It’s quite possibly the greatest reaction shot in the history of movies. (Fine, at least it’s up there with City Lights.) And who has ever thought of a more brilliant coda to a musical? All of a sudden, the bum is no longer part of the musical he once led; he’s relegated to the side, and the music that used to boom and pop now only whispers. He accepts his lot, nods, and walks off, leaving the woman to her old life. But we know he’ll never forget that idyll in Central Park. That’s what musicals are all about: sure, the woman may wake up and come to her senses after a few days, but that doesn’t negate just how beautiful those few days really were.



3. Love Me Tonight (1932, opening number)


Speaking of underrated directors—how about Rouben Mamoulian? Here’s another early-30’s musical, another Rodgers and Hart score. And I dare anyone to find a better musical opening than this one. First we get shots of the city: Paris in the early morning. Dawn-lit streets, sleeping factories, a lone bicyclist. Then we hear snoring. Then shutters opening. Then a cart rolling down, then laundry being aired, then more windows opening. And all in rhythm. We build and build, and before we know it we’re in a musical number. With Guy and Madeline, I wanted to try to trace a passage from documentary to musical. What’s incredible is that as early as 1932, Mamoulian was up to the same thing. That’s what I love about that era: filmmakers back then were still figuring out what a musical really was. They were making up the rules as they went along, improvising, experimenting. These are avant-garde movies—and yet there’s Maurice Chevalier singing “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Another spectacular number, by the way.) The energy in a movie like this is palpable—and infectious. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to go make a movie.



4. Black and Tan Fantasy (1929)


Here’s one more from the same era: this is not a full-length feature, but a two-reeler by the great Dudley Murphy, and it’s a jaw-dropper. You can think of it as an early version of a music video: the story is constructed around a single piece of music—in this case, Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”—and Ellington himself both acts and performs, along with Fredi Washington and Ellington’s Orchestra. This 1929 short is full of great song-and-dance moments, but there’s one, right at the beginning, that I particularly adore. It’s the simplest one in the movie: Ellington plays his new composition on a piano, with his trumpeter Arthur Whetsel accompanying, as Washington stands and listens. It’s a single shot, medium wide. It’s the musical genre distilled to its essence: people playing music. There’s a whole slew of great sitting-at-a-piano-and-playing-a-song moments in movies (the first number of Meet Me In St. Louis is hard to beat), but there’s something special about watching Ellington. He’s not a trained actor, and you can feel his awkwardness in front of the camera. But then he starts playing, and you’re looking at a genius. And it’s that transition, from I’m-not-sure-how-to-behave-with-the-camera-on-me to who-cares-music-is-music that is so moving, and so beautiful. At a certain point, Ellington just smiles, totally at ease, his fingers gliding down the keys, and Whetsel raises his horn, and we know we’ve just been given a gift: the privilege of seeing musicians like these work through a number, away from the spotlights and the concert halls. It’s just lovely.



5. “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat, 1935)


I’m closing with a pretty iconic number. Now, there’re plenty of reasons why it’s iconic. Fred Astaire’s feet, legs, poise, voice. The sumptuous setting, the elegance of the camerawork—director Mark Sandrich was Astaire’s equal when it came to shooting these numbers. And of course the song, one of Irving Berlin’s best. But there’s one thing that moves me more than anything else in this number, and it’s this: Ginger Rogers. The old line about the Fred-and-Ginger pictures—“He gave her class, she gave him sex”—is due for a revision. Rogers gave Astaire depth. Watch Astaire dance with Cyd Charisse, and you’ll be exhilarated. But Astaire dancing with Rogers is something else. An Astaire-Charisse dance will blow you away; an Astaire-Rogers dance will make you cry. That’s because Rogers matches the beauty of Astaire’s footwork with the skill of her acting. She translates what Astaire does with his limbs to the emotions on her face. In “Cheek to Cheek,” she moves from reluctant to seduced to uncertain to swooning to nervous to flat-out-scared to exhilarated to peaceful back to uncertain, and, finally, hurt. There’s an entire story told in that number—with as many peaks and valleys and emotional currents as a Shakespeare play—and it’s all in Rogers’ face, and the way her hands grasp Astaire’s, and the way she responds to his moves, sometimes timidly, sometimes joyfully. Rogers’ performance locates the pain and heartbreak in what seems on the surface a light-hearted frolic: mistaken identities in an impossible version of Venice, complete with bewildered butlers and angry Italian designers. But when people speak of Top Hat as pure fluff, I’m not sure what they mean. Don’t get me wrong, I love pure fluff: Love Me Tonight is a prime example. There’s nothing to be sad about when watching that movie. But Top Hat is different: Astaire may live in that movie-movie-musical neverland, but Rogers lives in the real world, and she takes us with her, back and forth, from the idealism of a perfect dance to the disappointment when the music ends, with every glance of her eyes and flutter of her lips. She was one of the great screen actresses of all time—take not only “Cheek To Cheek” but “Isn’t It A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In the Rain)?” as proof—and she has yet to receive her due.


Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench opens at Cinema Village this Friday, November 5. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter. Click here to win tickets to a screening.


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