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Cheap Flicks: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

by on July 2, 2011
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Not every filmmaker has the deep pockets and A-list roster of Michael Bay, and not every filmmaker needs it. Many of the most beautiful and effective movies were made on a shoestring by those who weren’t in it for the paycheck but rather the message they could unleash on the world. Recently, thanks to the recommendation of a coworker and fellow film fanatic, I discovered a hidden treasure of a DVD: Damien Chazelle’s 2009 jazz musical “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”

Remember how “Once” was technically a musical, but didn’t seem like it? There were no giant production numbers, no overdubbed vocals, no obvious lip-synching. The story was simple, the characters naturalistic, the songs organic. Granted, the protagonists were musicians, but their lyrics reflected their situations and relationships better than spoken words ever could. They weren’t always happy with their lives, but they were surrounded by music and that made day-to-day struggles a bit more bearable.

“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” is a lot like “Once,” only there’s also tap dancing. And it takes some talented filmmaking to make tap dancing seem off-the-cuff.

At first glance, the film’s plot isn’t complicated: Guy (Jason Palmer) plays jazz trumpet and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) is a grad student. They’re together, until they’re not. Guy gets another girlfriend, Madeline looks to change her environment entirely. But is it really over between them? No one is sure, including Guy’s new girlfriend, Madeline’s landlords, and Guy and Madeline themselves.

Pretty straightforward, right? Except not really. Because as anyone who’s ever dated anyone else knows, there are often lingering feelings. Regret. Memories good and bad. Wondering if you did the right thing by leaving, or being left, without a fight. And what better way to work all this out than trumpeting and tapping?

Oh, and the entire movie is shot in black and white with a handheld camera. Before you roll your eyes at the pretension, let me assure you it works. The black and white brings to mind MGM musicals of old, and the handheld adds an earthy quality. The musical numbers aren’t slick and polished. They project happiness, but also nostalgia, gloom, desperation. And, lastly, optimism.

Granted, the world would be a louder place if we lived in a musical. However, I wouldn’t mind living inside “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Everyone looks better in black and white and sounds better warbling about the time they kissed a boy in the park. Even the depths of heartbreak sound lovelier in song.

“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” may not be at your local Redbox, but it’s worth the hunt. See what an innovative filmmaker can do with a few dollars and a musical dream.