The common thread coursing through the short but successful career of film director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is his use of vintage jazz throughout: remarkably for one so young, his predilection is not contemporary, but harks back to the revolutionary years emboldened by Charlie Bird Parker and Miles Davis.
While Whiplash is an excoriating probe of a student drummer’s unceasing quest for perfection, somewhat aided by a punctilious, bordering on the sadistic, mentor and isn’t always easy on the eye, La La Land is anything but. Little on the surface to suggest both were directed by Chazelle, except for the homage to American jazz.
What I didn’t realise until Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench soundtrack arrived by pony express, is how it prefigures the style and tone La La Land: big band jazz and Sinatraesque lyrics.
Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench – scored by Justin Hurwitz – was Chazelle’s first film a decade ago: it was intended as his thesis and both writer and composer (who had never worked on a film before) were completely unknown.
But even then it would seem that Chazelle and Hurwitz had the Midas touch because the 13 tracks (five with lyrics by Chazelle) on
Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench already foreshadow the maturity of La La Land. There is an umbilical cord between both.
Whiplash sits uncomfortably between Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and La La Land: it is dark, and they aren’t. However, its critical success (JK Simmons won an Oscar) gave Chazelle the leverage to make La La Land, and develop the themes he had worked on ten years earlier.
What is in evidence from the off, cue It Happened At Dawn (vocals by Desiree Garcia), is the debt of gratitude Chazelle and Hurwitz owe to Gene Kelly’s On The Town, whose opening number, like La La Land, was filmed entirely on location on the streets of a city, this time New York. La la Land also, quite blatantly and unashamedly, mimics the visual motifs of French Impressionism used by Kelly in An American in Paris.
And while jazz is pertinent to Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and Whiplash, it has a walk on role in La La Land, a kind of scene filler to add three dimensional qualities to the one dimensional Ryan Gosling character.
La La Land takes the seeds planted by Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and boldly and brashly achieves what Kelly original did, segueing the two streams of the American musical before Kelly arrived on the scene, Busby Berkeley’s pyrotechnics and Fred Astaire’s theatrics.
For all that, Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench is a noble endeavour: Hurwitz in the sleeve notes writes that they recorded the score with the cheapest orchestra they could find (Bratislava Symphony Orchestra), armed with only an approximation of what it would sound like from using the notation software Finale.
In other words, he learned film scoring on the job, and there are sections that don’t breathe like he imagined. But, for his minor reservations, and he was only 21, this is an enchanting recording, which is never dull because the orchestration comes with counterpoint and countermelody, and are the ideal vehicle Chazelle’s fully formed lyrics, and exuberance, for which he should be applauded.