Posts Tagged ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’

Seven years after his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), and only two after the international success of Whiplash (2014), Chazelle writes and directs yet another story where film and music are indissolubly tied together, and sets it in a colourful Los Angeles, the city of stars filled with people who dream of becoming someone they are not.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a thirty-something-year-old piano bar player obsessed with jazz, but forced to play the same repetitive tunes before crowds of vaguely interested customers. Mia (Stone) a girl about the same age who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. We meet both in a scene that mimics the beginning of Fellini’s 8 and ½. It’s Los Angeles, it’s rush hour, and cars are stuck in traffic. The only way people can escape the jam is dreaming, and dream they do: a jammed bridge turns into a carnival where drivers leave their seats, jump, dance and play around their vehicles. It’s a brilliant choreography, and a faithful summary of what the rest of the movie will be: explosive, vibrant and delightful. The camera follows the drivers-turned-dancers and the whole take feels like a wave of energy and colours that lingers long after the dream ends and people return to their seats.

Stuck amongst them are Sebastian and Amy. They meet when she fails to start her car, they honk and insult each other, then they meet again, they flirt, begin to go out, fall in love. It’s a standard love story, and yet it isn’t: Chazelle divides it into four seasons, and the love unfolds like the weather: it sprouts, blossoms, grows old, fades away. But the director seems to fall in love with them as much as they do with each other, and this is what gives to La La Land the sense of delicacy and empathy which makes it stand out as a love story that not only works – it sticks with you.

Amy and Sebastian’s romance is scattered with moments of sadness, joy, explosive choreographies and tip-tap moves. They are both romantic, and try to find their place in worlds where being so is almost looked down upon. We see Amy coming in and out of auditions where she gets repeatedly humiliated, and there is a scene where Sebastian is told jazz is dying because of nostalgic people like him are killing it.

Chazelle is, implicitly, just as romantic as the two of them. He chose to direct a movie that speaks of an art form which its own performers claim to be decaying, jazz, and did it through a medium which hardly many people would have used, a musical. Yet the experiment works. La La Land is as a film that is danced just as much as it is sung, and the choreographies, as well as the duo’s contagious energy and chemistry, add rhythm to the film as if crescendos in a musical piece.

In a sea where everyone plays the same thing, Chazelle has managed to sing his own melody, the same way Sebastian and Amy tried to create their own. The warm applause La La Land received at the end of his premiere at Venice’s 73rd Film Festival is a deserved prelude to the awards the film will hopefully receive in the days and months to come.

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Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort Whiplash (which follows Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has caused quite a stir already in critics and festival circles, and by the film’s end it is not difficult to see why. Here we see big, compelling, but not even remotely attractive performances from two actors, in their characters’ skin, playing a brutal game of one-upmanship in a terrifying battle over Jazz music as an art form.

Indeed, the relationship between young drumming protégée Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his unforgivingly tough mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) is a difficult watch at the best of times but it is equally a thrilling one. There is a real permeating sense of terror elicited by Simmons’ performance as the unrelenting band leader – at a top east-coast privileged music conservatoire – who over the course insults and attempts to maim his students, in an attempt to motivate the truly committed and extinguish those who don’t have the same fire as him. Meanwhile, the initially sympathetic Neyman becomes some kind of monster himself – adapting to the punishing perfectionism of his tutor – and turning into an equally obsessive beast in order to be “one of the greats”, like his hero Buddy Rich; he is expertly played by the young Teller.

It’s not surprising then that both are being tipped for Oscar nominations (and stand a strong chance of winning), given the visceral torture one puts through the other to achieve perfection, through hours of tedious practicing. As a musician myself who works in a highly distinguished music conservatoire, Chazelle captures the tedium and pain of rehearsal expertly well, ratcheting up the tension with Simmons’ terrifying ogre.

Whiplash is not without its problems however. At times the narrative clunks along just a little too conveniently: the use of foreshadowing and an off-putting “recap of everything you’ve seen so far” 3rd act plot point. Even more troubling is Simmons’ character as a homophobic, misogynistic bully. The repeated use of the word “faggot” amongst other charming terms, as well as repeated attempts to push Neyman to the brink (by repeatedly using the mother who abandoned him) in less than pleasant ways, gets a bit too cruel for entertainment’s sake.

While undoubtedly there are highly strung, highly driven people out there who use horrendous language and get away with it, it becomes problematic when Fletcher comes off as humorous. Worse so, when he appears vaguely heroic; he is given the opportunity to become sympathetic and redemptive, even after the audience has discovered that he may well have driven a previous student to suicide. The film is such a difficult and exciting watch, precisely because the two lead characters are so consistently ghastly.

But the constant undercurrent thread of the music itself is what underpins and drives Whiplash towards its thrilling conclusion. The film opens with a drum roll increasing in velocity with terrific force, setting the tone for large sways of the experience. The film is at its best when it’s highlighting the excruciating work it takes to become the best and the closing few moments are edge-of-your-seat stuff. Chazelle is careful to not give too much of the music away until this point – only highlighting titbits and the often exhausting rehearsals – so when we finally see the finished performance, complete with a new found sense of optimism, it is truly rousing, immersive stuff that captures what it must feel like to witness the real-life greats.

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