Movie review: ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’

You might want to tuck Damien Chazelle’s name into your memory bank if his filmmaking debut, the terrific jazz improvisation that is “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” is any indication of what his future might hold.

How many 25-year-old indie directors choose to channel 1930s B-grade Hollywood musicals into a contemporary, tap-dancing love story, with nearly all of its very limited budget poured into paying the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra (yes, you read that correctly) to play the smoky original score created by a talented friend? And — and this is a big one — actually make it work? I think there might be just one.

Chazelle, with his songwriting buddy Justin Hurwitz, whose name you should also jot down for safekeeping, has taken his Harvard thesis short and spun it into black-and-white, 16-millimeter, long-form magic. This is a story of few words, a lot of great music and countless emotional shadings.


The story is set in Boston, which is as lovingly shot as its residents, and chapters through a short time in the life of Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia). The setup is ebullient simplicity itself: a summer day, a girl on a bridge wearing a strappy sundress that looks like a ‘50s find, with swing music blowing in the background like a warm breeze. When she turns, it comes with a smile, one of the last we will see for a while.

Next the camera takes a slow walk though the city set to the kind of New Orleans backstreet blues favored by Thelonious Monk. Along the way we encounter Guy, a street musician who turns out to be a rising jazz trumpet player, then Madeline, the sundress girl now in jeans. They pass as strangers, then emerge as a couple. But that park bench of the title is waiting.

By the time we get there, and it’s only a few pleasurable minutes, things have gone cold — there is snow on the ground, silence hangs in the air, the bench looks icy. Guy slowly leaves, trumpet case under one arm. He doesn’t look back, she doesn’t watch him leave. Not one word has been said since the film began. That the director instinctively trusts his audience to keep up with him, to understand, suggests a confidence not usually found in first films, and what we get as a result is a near-perfect beginning.

The reason for that cold day in the park is Elena (Sandha Khin), a beautiful girl so immediately connected to Guy that you know their chance encounter on a subway is going to combust. And so Guy and Madeline go their separate ways. The one constant is the music — always there, keeping time, framing the ups and downs, defining the disconnections and reconnections that will follow.

The director is a jazz drummer and had planned for his musician star to be one too. It was a stroke of luck that he found Palmer during his search of the Boston club scene, and turned on a dime to put the talented trumpeter at the center of the film. Palmer is reed thin and lanky, with a short Afro and a boyish face given some edge by hollowed-out cheeks. Garcia is lush to his lean, and it’s easy to believe her Madeline is forever getting lost trying to figure out her place in life. That she tap dances spontaneously with the wait staff at Boston’s Summer Shack one night after work is like winning a bonus round.

The film has the black-and-white beauty of the type evoked by old photographs, but the camera’s hither and yon pans infuse it with a documentary sensibility that helps infuse it with life. The effect is like the music Guy makes, one improvisation after another. It’s a roughness that works most of the time, and is easy to forgive when it doesn’t. Besides, you want to give them plenty of time to find their way back to that park bench if they can.

Box office: ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle Sunset 5