ON THE CUSP OF GREATNESS

Only three films in, Damien Chazelle has al­ready proved him­self the real deal, says Em­pire’s Ian Freer

Empire (UK) - - CINEMA -

DAMIEN CHAZELLE IS a his­tory maker. Not only on screen, but off. You might not re­alise it, but never be­fore in

Em­pire’s (nearly) 30-year his­tory has a film­maker re­ceived a five-star Em­pire rat­ing for their first three films. Not even the likes of David Fincher (Alien3

— two stars), Danny Boyle (A Life Less Ordinary — three stars), Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown — four stars) achieved such a stel­lar start to their ca­reers. Go­ing back pre-em­pire, it took Scors­ese a few movies to hit his stride with Mean Streets, and Spiel­berg’s the­atri­cal de­but The Su­gar­land Ex­press was ini­tially greeted with mixed re­views. Chazelle is three for three, 15 stars out of 15 stars, and it’s just not us. He won a Best Di­rec­tor Os­car at 32 for La La Land (at that age Spiel­berg was strug­gling with 1941), the youngest ever re­cip­i­ent. Per­haps be­cause he is such an as­sum­ing fig­ure — how many other Hol­ly­wood types would have re­acted to the La La Land Best Pic­ture far­rago with such grace? — there isn’t the hoopla around him. But few film­mak­ers in Hol­ly­wood his­tory have come out the blocks quicker than him.

There are film­mak­ers who have made larger splashes on the cul­tural land­scape. Take Tarantino. Reser­voir Dogs, Pulp Fic­tion and Jackie Brown, all patently ter­rific, turned him into a rock god, but it is bril­liance rid­ing along nar­row tracks within his wheel­house of self-aware crime flicks. By con­trast, Chazelle’s three films have all been com­pletely dif­fer­ent:

Whiplash is a sear­ing two-handed drama,

La La Land a mu­si­cal fan­ta­sia and

First Man a se­ri­ous old school biopic. Chazelle firmly em­braces genre but un­like Tarantino he doesn’t de­ride kicks or plea­sures by sub­vert­ing them. This is per­haps why Chazelle as a film­maker has not made the im­pact on pop­u­lar cul­ture he could have — he isn’t edgy or cool.

Nor is he a rev­o­lu­tion­ary or in­no­va­tor. Like Spiel­berg, Chazelle is work­ing in the heart of the main­stream and do­ing it as­ton­ish­ingly well.

As a film­maker, he has it all. He is skilled in the set-piece (First Man’s Gemini 8 mis­sion) and the grace-note (the jump cuts of Whiplash). He is a mas­ter of all the cin­e­matic arts: story struc­ture, colour, rhythm, tone, cam­era place­ment, sound de­sign and mu­sic, the lat­ter in ca­hoots with com­poser Justin Hur­witz, a key co­hort since his Har­vard the­sis film, Guy And Made­line On A Park Bench. He also has an un­par­al­leled skill with ac­tors — his first two flicks snagged Os­cars for J.K. Sim­mons (Whiplash) and Emma Stone (La La Land). If his the­matic con­cerns re­main con­stant — they are por­traits of the na­ture of male ob­ses­sion — his cin­e­matic style is pro­tean. He can do the skit­tish vérité of Whiplash, the Tech­ni­color opi­ate of La La Land and the con­trolled rigour of First Man. Don’t be sur­prised if next up is a Carry On film done in one take (Ryan Gosling is Sid James).

Chazelle has yet to an­nounce his next di­rec­to­rial project, so there will be a wait to see if he in­vents the The 20 Star Club (he is de­vel­op­ing a mu­si­cal drama se­ries for Net­flix called The Eddy). But, as it stands, we are po­ten­tially on the precipice of one of the great di­rec­to­rial ca­reers. Let’s cher­ish the mo­ment in case it all goes Heaven’s Gate.

Clock­wise from above: Damien Chazelle on loac­tion film­ing First Man; An­drew (Miles Teller) is a jazz drum ma­chine in Chazelle’s de­but, Whiplash; Mia (Emma Stone) and Se­bas­tian (Ryan Gosling) dance for love in La La Land.

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