John Cassavetes might not be synonymous with jazz, but he was certainly improvisational and several of his films even included jazz-related scores, like his masterful Shadows (which featured the music of Charles Mingus). Though billed as a tribute to the old-fashioned movie musical, Damien Chazelle’s feature directorial debut similarly has an uncomfortably intimate style, a gritty black & white look, and a moody jazz score, which cumulatively suggest he has spent a great deal of time absorbing the work of the pioneering independent filmmaker—a high compliment indeed. The result is Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (trailer here), the highlight of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, at long last opening theatrically in New York this Friday.
Chazelle studied jazz drumming and originally conceived the male protagonist of Bench as a drummer as well. However, seeing and hearing trumpeter Jason Palmer blow at Boston club convinced him to cast the up-and-coming horn man instead. Palmer plays Guy, a very talented musician on the bandstand, who proves not so together when navigating his personal life.
Guy has recently dumped Madeline. While she was rather shy and reserved, at least she took an active interest in jazz. Guy soon takes up with the more outgoing Elena, who could not care less about his music, which is a shame, because it is very good. Though initially depressed by the break-up, Madeline slowly rebuilds her social confidence, taking jazz drumming lessons and exploring a possible relationship with a French expat in New York. Just as Madeline decides to take the plunge and join him in the City, Guy suddenly realizes how much he misses her.
In Bench, characters do indeed spontaneously break out into song, much in the style of classic movie musicals. However, since the film is largely set within the jazz world of clubs and jam sessions, most of the musical interludes do not feel so fanciful. Andre Hayward, a longtime stalwart of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and groups led by Dave Holland, lends serious jazz cred to the proceedings, logically playing a jazz musician named Andre. In addition to a swinging trombone solo, he also takes the vocal lead on the rousing swinger “Cincinnati.” Also, the then sixteen year-old saxophone phenom Grace Kelly is one of many Massachusetts jazz musicians who recorded Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack music, along with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra.
Although the film occasionally veers off course (particularly during Elena’s odd encounter with a married man that seems out of character and irrelevant to the overall story), Chazelle makes a remarkably accomplished debut with Bench. The intense focus on its characters and their flaws is quite compelling, even discomfiting. Fortunately, the frequently swinging musical numbers and some hip tap choreographed by Kelly Kaleta help relieve the tension of the characters’ closely observed lives.
Think of it as a 1950’s MGM musical shot by Cassavetes on the mean-ish streets of Boston, and you might have a sense of Bench’s vibe. It is a rewarding film that really stands out from the pack. Warmly recommended, it opens Friday (11/5) in New York at the Cinema Village.