Venice (AFP, Reuters, Washington Post) - La La Land, a jazzy musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, whipping up a frenzy and gaining Oscar buzz.
The movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a former musician and the Oscar-nominated film-maker behind Whiplash (2014), is a tribute to the golden age of American musicals. It reunites Stone and Gosling, the much-loved stars of the 2011 romcom Crazy, Stupid, Love - but with oodles of singing this time.
It opens with a chorus music scene set on a Los Angeles motorway, where drivers jamming away to tunes in their empty cars suddenly jump out of their vehicles and dance on the roofs, all to the beats of a big band.
Stone plays Mia, a wide-eyed, aspiring actress, while Gosling is Sebastian, a curmudgeonly jazz pianist. The two meet after he honks at her during a traffic jam and she flips him off, but they end up falling in love.
The movie was well received by critics, who compared it to Singin' In The Rain (1952) and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964).
Both the Telegraph and the Guardian awarded the movie a perfect five stars, the latter calling it "a sun-drenched musical masterpiece". Variety wrote that "as another Oscar season begins, this time under a dark cloud of controversy, movies like this take their natural place: Escapist wonderment that reminds audiences why they bother staring at flickering images on a wall in the first place".
The critics, gathered on the Lido di Venezia for the 10-day fest, cheered loudly as Chazelle and Stone met the press following the screening. The musical is one of 20 films vying for the Golden Lion that will be awarded on Sept 10.
Chazelle said that the movie builds on all the clichés people may have about Los Angeles, including the "traffic, the terrible parties, the celebrity culture, the shallowness", but then shows that "there is something very poetic about the city that's just built by people with these unrealistic dreams".
"It had to feel like a dream, but one that took place in a real place," he added, explaining that to get the light right, filming only took place between 6pm and 7pm each day, "much to the frustration of the producers".
Venice, the world's oldest film festival, has restored its reputation as an awards-season platform by premiering the last two Best Picture Oscar winners, Spotlight (2015) and Birdman (2014).
British director Sam Mendes heads this year's jury of nine, who include Chinese actress Vicki Zhao Wei, British-American director Joshua Oppenheimer and British actress Gemma Arterton.
Mendes said he was looked forward to seeing each movie with as little knowledge as possible, adding that he had no criteria for what made one excellent. "I will know it when I see it," he said.