ON THE CUSP OF GREATNESS
Only three films in, Damien Chazelle has already proved himself the real deal, says Empire’s Ian Freer
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.