Musicals have radical potential. Most narrative films exist in a self-contained story-world, or "diegesis," that evinces no cognizance of the fourth wall. Musicals, on the other hand, literally "stop the show" with song-and-dance numbers, directed squarely at the audience and our look. This direct address could be put to all manner of uses.
Early innovators like Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed utilized cinematic space, geometry and elaborate, single-take dance routines to dazzle us with the very image of the human body onscreen. In the '60s, French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy employed the format (in very different ways) to launch dual assaults on conventional film form and dominant social ideas. Industry liberals like Norman Jewison (a Canadian) and Milos Forman (a Czech) adapted some of Broadway's more progressive properties (Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, respectively) to convey, or attempt to sustain, the countercultural energy of the 1970s.
But the 1980s effectively saw the death of the big-screen musical. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of them being the loss of quality outside source material (see: Broadway musical, decline of). And of course, MTV reduced the concept of the musical to bite-sized chunks, and not always to the detriment of the form. In retrospect, figures like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Talking Heads contributed much more to the art of the musical than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Now that we're seeing more musicals than we have in quite some time, it's worth considering what's changed in our cultural landscape to make musicals viable again. The biggest contributing factor, perhaps, may be generational. The ironic detachment of "Xs" and "Ys" has ostensibly been displaced with a "new earnestness." More so than 20 years ago, a substantial segment of the viewing public enjoys outright spectacle again, and wants to believe in its direct pleasures.
Yet by and large, most of that radical potential within the basic form has, in recent years, been either left unexploited or actively stripped away. So we've had "edgy" TV shows engineered to sell weekly iTunes selections (I'm looking at you, Glee), bland indies that turn issues like immigration into smug romantic smarm (Once), and even a 9/11 musical (Clear Blue Tuesday). They may succeed within their own limited parameters, but none really tries to use the movie musical to explore states of being that couldn't have been conveyed just as easily in a tuneless universe.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, by first-time filmmaker Damien Chazelle, is something different. It pays homage to the history of movie musicals, while at the same time achieving something quite unique. Shot in black-and-white 16mm, on the streets of Boston and in some of that city's less well-appointed apartments, Guy and Madeline combines the joyous fantasies of song and dance with the gritty immediacy of documentary or avant-garde cinema. The film's protagonist could be said to be jazz trumpeter Guy (Jason Palmer, an actual trumpet player), since we tend to follow his travels through the city. He hooks up with shy Madeline (Desiree Garcia), they part, he plays with an ensemble, he has a bizarre, almost supernaturally decreed subway grind with Elena (Sandha Khin), who then becomes his live-in, and he continues playing and ambling until, in the end, he has a change of heart.
But although Guy is clearly driving the action, Chazelle's camera actually provides him with less knowable motivation throughout G&M. Instead, we learn more about Madeline as she pines for Guy, and in time we realize that we're seeing the man through her eyes. Her song and dance number, "Boy in the Park," drives this home. Behind his horn, Guy has limited vulnerability, but Madeline is "out there," in a major, exhilaratingly direct way. Similarly, Chazelle's filmmaking is funky and loose, reminiscent of John Cassavetes or Shirley Clarke, frequently sidetracked by its own sense of digression and pique.
Unlike the slick hyper-professionalism of Glee, or the rather canned shagginess of Once, G&M uses the buoyancy of the movie musical to heighten artifice and tinker with formal problems. The musical numbers are clearly dubbed in, but the sheer dissonance between grainy images of, say, a dingy apartment and transcendent jazz make it seem as though the sound and image are always floating atop one another, from two distinct worlds. This sense of a musical at odds with itself is utterly fitting, since Chazelle's film is about moments of joy stolen from the mundane fabric of things, something that mainstream entertainment simply cannot explore. (All our dreams are supposed to be fulfilled when we're being "entertained.") Guy and Madeline, while hardly perfect, is a rare contemporary film that honors the radical history of its genre while discovering new potentials within it. As such, it's the finest movie musical since Dancer in the Dark.