Telluride: 'La La Land' Opens to Big Applause; Could Extend Fest's Oscar Streak (Analysis)

Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the musical received two mid-movie ovations and a 20-second one at the end.
Courtesy of Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in 'La La Land'

Every best picture Oscar winner since 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, save for one, has played at the Telluride Film Festival, the annual Labor Day weekend gathering in the Rockies that kicks off the Oscar race, and the film that opened its 43rd edition may just go on to extend that remarkable streak.

La La Land, Damien Chazelle's musical dramedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, was selected for the coveted Friday afternoon Patron Preview slot, having already opened the Venice Film Festival earlier in the week. And the crowd that packed the Chuck Jones Cinema (and I mean packed, as I've never seen it before in five years of attending the fest) was not disappointed. They accorded the Los Angeles-set film two mid-movie ovations — one following its instant-classic opening sequence on a freeway and another following a heartwarming sequence at Griffith Park — and another 20-second one at the end.

While an unironic movie musical built around original tunes might be a tough sell to the masses in this era of cynicism (though live TV musicals certainly are popular), La La Land is almost tailor-made for Academy members (who have previously given their top prize to 10 musicals: The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, Going My Way, An American in Paris, Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and Chicago).

La La Land sympathetically showcases the struggles and sacrifices of people who pursue careers in show business — in this case, a musician and an actress. It is expertly crafted by the same prodigy — 31-year-old Chazelle — who made his name with another music-centric film, 2014's best picture-nominated Whiplash, and who has great reverence for film history. It features unforgettable moments (including a magnificent homage to Singin' in the Rain) and music ("City of Stars," which is every bit as haunting as "Laura's Theme" or "As Time Goes By," is a slam dunk for a best original song nomination).

Additionally, it stars two of the most likable people imaginable, on screen and off, taking a major artistic risk together and displaying magical chemistry five years after first doing so in Crazy Stupid Love. (They also shared scenes in 2013's Gangster Squad.) Gosling's performance may be undervalued because his character is a bumbling charmer, not entirely unlike himself — but, even so, he sings and dances winningly. As for Stone, her best actress nomination — maybe even a win — is sewn up with her emotional rendition of "Here's to the Ones Who Dream," not unlike Anne Hathaway's was with her "I Dreamed a Dream" in 2012's Les Miserables.

And, perhaps sealing the deal, this heart-tugging love letter to jazz, L.A. and the movies is miles unlike any other film of this year. That sense of uniqueness certainly helped two recent best picture Oscar winners about show business, 2011's The Artist and 2014's Birdman (for which Stone received a best supporting actress nomination) to break away from the pack.

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