Shot on the streets of Boston in black and white by a 25-year-old director, Guy and Madeline Sitting on a Park Bench has easily made it onto several 10-best lists -- that is, lists of the 10 best films that did not get into theaters in 2009. But after two years in production and more than a year on the festival circuit, the film that critics have hailed as a fresh blend of the 1930s Hollywood musical and the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s has finally opened to audiences in New York.
The film's long road to theaters is, perhaps, not so surprising considering its unlikely beginnings as a college film class project. Filmmaker Damien Chazelle was a student at Harvard when he decided to quit school and turn his homework into a feature-length musical. He says he literally wanted to combine documentary style filmmaking with the classic musicals he spent hours watching at the Harvard Film Archive.
"The things about musicals that I liked the most had to do with the sense of spontaneity," Chazelle says, "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."
Everyday things like, say, a girl named Madeline walking in a park and thinking of the boy who's dumped her. In the film, Madeline, played by Desiree Garcia, watches other people going about their own happy business and starts to sing: "It happened at dawn. It happened in this park. A guy and girl had dallied till the moon was gone."
The scene looks very much like a documentary of a day in the park -- except for the fact that a young woman breaks into song backed up by an unseen orchestra. This is exactly the effect director Chazelle says he was after.
"The idea for me was to kind of use what I had around me," Chazelle says. "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."
Chazelle's main character, Guy, the boy who dumped the girl, is a trumpeter played by Boston trumpet player Jason Palmer. Palmer says Chazelle didn't give him a script, only a character sketch and then filmed him on the fly.
For example, in a street scene at night, Guy listens to a car go by with its radio turned up loud. He says, "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. It's always -- " he imitates the familiar bass line of a hip-hop tune -- "something like that. Maybe the day'll come when we'll hear all types of music being blasted."
"That was totally improvisatory," Palmer says. "I was hanging out with a friend of mine. We were in front of my apartment, and we were just talking, and [Chazelle] said, 'OK, I'm just going to shoot you guys hanging out, and we'll just see what we can get.' And a lot of the movie was like that, I'd say. There was no script in that regard, so whatever was said was pretty much off the cuff."
The unforced, matter-of-fact style of the movie is just one of the things that inspired critic Amy Taubin to write about it in Film Comment and designate it the best undistributed film of 2009 on Indiewire; in Artforum she called it one of the year's best, period. Taubin says the film gives us a glimpse of life around Boston's music schools, just as the films of Jean-Luc Godard and other New Wave directors in the 1960s gave us a glimpse of Paris neighborhoods while breaking all of the rules of conventional moviemaking.
The film's improvisational acting approach also recalls the legendary American indie pioneer John Cassavetes (another favorite of Chazelle's). But, as Taubin points out, Cassavetes worked with trained actors most of the time, while Chazelle has fashioned his film with nonactors playing characters like themselves -- much harder to do, Taubin says.
"These are just really interesting people who are not actors but who are just very close to what their characters are supposed to be," Taubin says, "particularly Jason [Palmer], who is an extremely promising trumpet player. But 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 full and very rich and very believable."
Taubin says she also likes the score by Justin Hurwitz -- performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra -- and what she calls "an absolutely brilliant set piece" that takes place in two small rehearsal rooms. In that scene, 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. Taubin says the camera seems like a character stuck at first in the hallway as it tries to catch the action in both rooms.
"The way it moves," she says, "the way it pans from door opening to door opening sets the rhythm for the scene in a way that I find altogether remarkable."
Chazelle -- who also serves as the film's camera man, 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, had rehearsed for months. Then he filmed the scene over and over, each time in one long shot. He recalls it taking six or seven takes all the way through.
"I think the one you see is the last take, precisely because as the musicians would get more and more comfortable, and better and better, and more and more into their groove, the crowd around them would get drunker and drunker and drunker," Chazelle says. "So by the end, you have a scene where the musicians all know exactly what they're doing, but the crowd has forgotten there's a camera, and they're just having a good time."
And so was the director. Chazelle says that in the musical, he finds a microcosm of the profession he's chosen.
"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, can we allow our emotions to kind of express themselves in that way -- are the same things that filmmakers ask when they start a movie," Chazelle says. "It's about creativity; it's about expression. And I think it's something that makes the genre, has always made the genre, feel very vital."
Chazelle says he even thinks the musical is coming back. Based in Los Angeles, he's now working on a new screenplay -- a musical, of course.
And, by the way, he did eventually graduate from Harvard.