Musicals, by and large, are not really “Oscar” movies. In fact, in the past 50 years, only three musicals have ever won Best Picture, with 2002’s stage-y adaptation of Chicago being the most recent winner. However, this year’s awards season could see the return of the musical in a big way, as La La Land is making a big splash at this early awards season stage.
The film marks the second feature from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle and is a harmoniously perfect blend of old fashioned and contemporary, as it tells the story of a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a struggling jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) trying to make their dreams come true in grand ole Los Angeles. That may sound like a trite premise, but Chazelle pulls off something of a high wire walk throughout the course of La La Land, conjuring feelings of romance and nostalgia while also confronting the harsh realities of the real world in a pitch-perfect balance. This is a stunning piece of filmmaking from start to finish; a rousing, stirring, emotional experience; and it has the potential to become this season’s Oscar juggernaut if Academy voters take to it like audiences on the fall film festival circuit just did.
La La Land had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival where it garnered stellar reviews, then it went to the prestigious yet intimate Telluride Film Festival, where it also scored incredibly positive notices from critics (including our own Brian Formo). And now, it’s just made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the reception to the film is electric. I was in attendance for the first Press and Industry screening of the film on Monday, and having attended TIFF three times before, I can tell you I’ve never quite heard (or felt) a reaction like that from this group of usually pretty reserved professionals before. There were applause breaks throughout the film, followed by more applause and shouts over the closing credits. I can only imagine how this thing’s gonna play for Academy voters.
Indeed, the film’s Hollywood setting and themes of following one’s dreams will surely go over well with the Los Angeles crowd—these are the same folks who adored Birdman and The Artist, so yeah, they have a certain affinity for “inside baseball” movies.
But La La Land is anything but inside baseball. It’s a crowdpleaser in every sense of the word, and I imagine a Best Picture nomination is all but assured at this point. Chazelle’s precise and jaw-dropping execution of his singular vision is incredible, so a Best Director notice is a high possibility as well. Moreover, this isn’t a one-note script that does a song and dance, throws in a breakup/reconciliation, and goes out with a big, flashy, happy ending. It’s narratively complex and the characters are wonderfully dimensional, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chazelle in the Best Original Screenplay race as well.
And in service of the film’s desire to evoke the classic Hollywood musicals, there are a great many long-takes and visual flourishes that should put cinematographer Linus Sandgren square into the Best Cinematography conversation. And throw Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in there as well, as the film’s colorful palette is perfectly constructed.
What of the performances? Stone gives, quite simply, the best performance of her career and is instantly at the top of the pack for Best Actress at the moment. She’s not just a great singer or dancer—she nails the refreshingly complex arc of Mia, giving the role everything she’s got and more, resulting in one of the most emotional turns of the year. Gosling is excellent as well, putting his inherent charm to good use while also digging deeper into the character to flesh Sebastian out. But this is really Stone’s movie and she somewhat steals the show.
This being a musical and all, the film is certainly in the Best Original Song conversation—the question is for which ones? “City of Stars”—as close to a theme song as La La Land gets—and Stone’s showstopper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream” seem like the best bets, but there’s not really a bad song in the film, so I’ll be curious to see how Summit/Lionsgate progress on this front.
If you’ve been following along with Oscar Beat you know that most of the year’s biggest awards contenders get unveiled on the fall film festival circuit, and La La Land really feels like one that could go very, very far. And, as an added bonus, it happens to be an incredible film. It doesn’t open in theaters until December 2nd, but I have a feeling this could be a pretty major box office hit, which would only boost its chances. We’ve a long, long way to go, and many things can change, but as it stands now La La Land is going to be one of the biggest contenders of the year.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the film’s chances in various categories at this moment in time. As always, these are subject to change—and they will:
Best Actress – Emma Stone
Best Director – Damien Chazelle
Best Cinematography – Linus Sandgren
Best Original Song
Best Sound Editing/Mixing
Could Go Either Way
Best Actor – Ryan Gosling
Best Original Screenplay – Damien Chazelle
Best Costume Design – Mary Zophres
Best Production Design – David Wasco
To catch up with the rest of my Oscar Beat dispatches from TIFF, peruse the links below:
- Is ‘Arrival’ an Oscar Contender?
- Tearjerkers ‘Lion’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ Could Be Serious Oscar Players