The bewitching musical La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone won the coveted Toronto film festival audience prize on Sunday, giving it a leg up on the competition as the Oscars race takes shape.
The joyful, quirky film by Damien Chazelle about a struggling jazz pianist and his actress girlfriend in Los Angeles pays tribute to the Golden Age of American musicals, honouring classics from Top Hat to “Singing in the Rain” to “Grease.”
It also reunites Gosling and Stone, who starred together in the 2011 romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love — but with oodles of singing this time.
Stone plays Mia, a wide-eyed romantic who goes from audition to audition — often failed — in her quest to make it big, while Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist with a mission to save the medium, but who struggles to pay his bills.
The pair meet — in one of LA’s famous traffic jams and then at a bawdy celebrity party — before wooing each other in tap- and ballroom-dancing sequences reminiscent of Hollywood icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Now more than ever we need hope and romance on the big screen,” said Chazelle, 31, a former jazz musician whose film Whiplash (2014) took home three Oscars out of five nominations.
“There’s something about musicals. They are movies as a dreamland, expressing a world in which you break into song, in which you can violate the rules of reality,” said Chazelle, the film’s writer and director.
La La Land opened the Venice film festival in late August, earning accolades from critics and moviegoers, before screening in Toronto — a bellwether for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors.
The picture bursts with enthusiasm and happiness from the opening scene: a big dance number on a freeway with men and women dressed in sun-kissed yellows, rich reds and blues dancing on their cars.
Chazelle said he had brought the love story into the modern day by setting it in Los Angeles, whose nickname La-La Land also refers to a euphoric, dreamlike mental state.
Chazelle, who has lived in the sprawling southern California metropolis for almost a decade, said it was “a city of loneliness when you first live there, not a city that offers itself up.”
Road to Oscars
In past years, films such as 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire went on from winning the Toronto film festival people’s choice award for best picture to take the top honour at the Oscars.
Earlier this year, Toronto audience favourite Spotlight beat all predictions to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
Runners-up for the Toronto prize this year were first-time filmmaker Garth Davis’s Lion, and Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
Queen of Katwe chronicles the true story of a Ugandan girl who pursues her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
Lion, another powerful real-life tale, follows a young Indian boy on a 25-year journey to find his family after being separated and lost nearly 1,600 kilometres from home.
Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, the film stars Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara.
Toronto jury prizes also went to Pablo Larrain for Jackie, Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between, Mbithi Masya for Kati Kati, and Feng Xiaogang for I Am Not Madame Bovary.