La La Land is a full-throated, big-budget musical, a technical masterpiece in which 200 people hit their marks every second and the whole magical, surrealist affair is painted with Technicolor candy hues. Seven years before that, Damien Chazelle made another musical — a much quieter, rougher, and less expensive one.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is Chazelle’s first film, a cinéma vérite-style musical about two young people in Boston — he’s a musician (played by real-life jazz trumpeter Jason Palmer) and she (Desiree Garcia) is unemployed and a little unmoored. They start the movie in love, but they spend most of it apart. Madeline dedicates her time to singing and performing elaborate tap dances, while Guy rambles on about Charlie Parker and tries to write a ballet for trumpet. The film is short, sweet, and sad — worth an hour and 20 minutes of your life and the $3.99 to rent it on iTunes.
Where La La Land finds romance with winking tributes to big Hollywood musicals of old, sparkly effects, a frothy energy, and huge set pieces, Guy and Madeline’s romance comes from simpler, more true-to-life things: wandering around a park and humming, cleaning the windows of a New York oyster bar, eating stolen bread alone, and then wanting to dance. If you are or have ever been young and broke in a major city, it’ll hit the mark a few dozen times.
It’s easy to see how Guy and Madeline planted the seeds for La La Land, as well as Chazelle’s 2014 breakthrough hit Whiplash. It’s as obsessed with jazz as either film, and equally as interested in the tensions between love and art. Unfortunately, that art is reserved for the male leads in Chazelle’s first two films (Emma Stone’s character in La La Land is his first ambitious leading lady). But even as a confused and bored waitress Madeline isn’t exactly a loser — she’s the one with the ability to articulate her feelings and Guy, while an admirable musician, is a bit of a child.
She has all the knock-out lyrics, and kills it in “Love in the Fall,” an eager, twirl-inducing song about New York City’s redeeming qualities and how they pale in comparison to a park bench smooch.
On what must have been a tiny budget (the film started as Chazelle’s film school thesis project and grossed only $35,000 at the box office), Guy and Madeline is an incredible feat of wrangling talent. All of the music is original — the first collaboration between Chazelle and his La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz. The jazz numbers are mostly performed live by the cast. Garcia, who has no other acting credits before or since, carries the film — starring in all of its biggest toe-tapping musical numbers and its most heart-wrenching ballads.
If you enjoy La La Land, or if you think it’s about time your gloomy East Coast city gets a modern movie-musical, it’s worth taking a look at where an exciting new filmmaker got his start.