Film and TV

Emma Stone Wows Denver Film Festival Off-Screen and On in La La Land

Over the years, the red carpet at the Denver Film Festival has been graced by plenty of terrific cinematic artists but relatively few mega-stars.

So why was the crowd hugging the rug prior to last night's kickoff of the fest's 39th edition roughly five times the usual size?

Two words: Emma Stone.

Not only did DFF39, as the event is being hashtagged, snag La La Land, a much-anticipated musical from writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), for its opening-night attraction, but Chazelle and Stone, who co-stars in the flick with Ryan Gosling, actually showed up for the event. And seldom has a city been so grateful. True, Denver has attracted more than its share of celebrities lately, including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and their (mostly her) campaign surrogates. But if the upcoming election was being judged on glamour, Stone would win in a landslide.

Swarms of press reps, attendees and lookie-loos were outside the entrance to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House a good hour before Stone and Chazelle were scheduled to make their appearance....

...with local personalities such as CW2's Chris Parente on hand.

There was also plenty of attention paid to lesser-knowns who traversed the fabric into the venue, including these fine folks....

...and these:

The buzz grew louder when the festival's Neil Truglio, the designated red-carpet MC, announced the arrival of Mandy Moore.

No, not that Mandy Moore — the Mandy Moore who choreographed La La Land (not to mention multiple seasons of So You Think You Can Dance).

And then there was Demián Bichir, who would have been the big attraction at most DFFs; he's best known for roles in Weeds and The Bridge, and he had a role in The Hateful Eight, which filmed in Colorado.

But although Bichir, who's at the fest to draw attention to his directorial debut, Un Cuento De Circo & A Love Song, received a warm reception, Truglio's introduction of Chazelle and Stone prompted an actual cheer, not to mention the flaring of so many camera flashes that passersby may have wondered if a supernatural event was taking place. And from the festival's perspective, one did.

Stone and Chazelle showed up a few minutes late and lingered on the red carpet for longer than the fest's organizers probably planned. After they finally moved along, my son Nick and I found seats inside the opera house in short supply. We wound up at the very top level of the mammoth facility — an area that hasn't been open for plenty of the showcase festival events over recent years.

This time around, though, the place was packed for festival director Britta Erickson's opening remarks, which provided an overview of the festival's riches, many of which we spotlighted in our Denver Film Festival 2016 preview interview with fest artistic director Brit Withey. Again this year, Withey is sharing must-see picks for each day of the festival; click for more about his suggestion for today, One Week and a Day.

Erickson also took a moment to encourage folks to support ballot issue 4B, the renewal of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. (In the following post, a proponent of SCFD presents the arguments for why you should vote for 4B.) She also mentioned that Popsicle, the Yes on SCFD mascot — aka somebody in a polar bear suit — had also walked the red carpet.

He (or she) posed for paparazzi pics, too. It was that kind of night.

After Erickson's welcome and one of the less interesting sponsor videos produced for the fest, Chazelle and Stone briefly took the stage, with Stone revealing that she'd never been to Denver before and wondering if all first-timers are treated as well as she was. Answer: no.

She also thanked the audience for coming out to see La La Land and offered her hope that its members enjoyed watching it as much as she, Chazelle and the rest of the cast and crew did making it — standard palaver in such circumstances, to be sure, but in this case wholly accurate. Chazelle's filmmaking exuberance was obvious from the first scene, a music-and-dance extravaganza that breaks out on a highway amid one of Los Angeles' trademark traffic jams. The resulting routine plays like a scene from Jean Luc Godard's 1967 benchmarkWeekend as transformed from black comedy to an exhilarating blast of sunny optimism.

What follows this scene-setter is a twist on classic Hollywood romance, with Gosling as a jazz-loving pianist ready to starve for his art (at least until a commercially savvy pal played by singer John Legend offers him the sort of sell-out gig that he can't resist, at least for a while) and Stone portraying a fledgling actress who can't get off the audition-circuit hamster wheel. Many of the sequences recall big-screen tropes from the 1930s and 1940s, including a good-time montage replete with shots of champagne overflowing glass after glass, but Chazelle infuses them with modern, youthful energy. A set piece that takes place around (and in) a swimming pool at a happening L.A. party is crazily adrenalized in a way that nods to the past while hurtling headlong into the future. And that's not to mention a wonderful trip to the Griffith Park Observatory (a favorite movie site for well over half a century) that magically moves from dancing with the stars to dancing among them.

The match between the Gosling and Stone characters hits one idealistic peak after another during the first half of the film, alerting anyone who's ever seen a movie that a downturn is in the offing. And initially, the shift in tone, complete with narrative allusions to both A Star Is Born and (especially) The Way We Were, feels abrupt. But if the conclusion is more melancholy than anticipated, it's also well-earned and creatively rich, thanks to a sequence that uses the tools of golden-age movie musicals in a deeper, more profound way than they were typically deployed at the time.

Gosling, for his part, is a singer in the tradition of Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls and Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon — which is another way of saying he won't be dumping movies for a career in music anytime soon — and his hoofing is merely rudimentary.

Stone, meanwhile, has a wispier singing voice than expected given her throaty speech — at least until an audition number toward the end of the film, when she displays an aptitude for belting that demonstrates her character's true talents at the perfect time.

But in the end, none of that matters. For this pair, on-screen chemistry counts for a lot more than an eight-octave range and the ability to foxtrot on an Astaire-and-Rogers level, especially in a hilarious scene when Stone mocks Gosling (and shows off her formidable and well-known lip-syncing abilities) after requesting that he and the other members of a cheesy '80s cover band play the simplest synth-pop song of all time, "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls.

After the screening, Stone and Chazelle took part in a Q&A with former Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy that was rambling but good-humored, especially when Stone said that the films that inspired her to become an actress include Steve Martin's The Jerk. (Granted, she later revealed that her favorite film is Charlie Chaplin's City Lights.) The joy in the room was palpable — and bodes well for a festival that doesn't look a day over 39.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts