***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language throughout, some sexuality and nudity, and substance abuse)
Released: October 5, 2018
Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chapelle, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay
A movie star has been born, and another – now making his directorial debut – is born again.
A Star Is Born follows a well-worn “rise to fame” formula. Indeed, it’s literally been done three times before (in 1937, 1954, and 1976). Plus, the conceit of a talented singer plucked from obscurity is the baseline of nearly every music fable.
But somehow, almost humbly, this one transcends formula, bursting with a raw emotion that defies this remake’s inherent contrivance. It’s sincere and authentic, with a passionate intensity that, at times, becomes overwhelming.
It’s also not a conventional musical. The songs are natural to the context, not a fantastical trope of “bursting into song,” and yet A Star Is Born produces the same kind of power as the best musicals, each song laying bare the deepest feelings and vulnerabilities. One number especially – a.k.a. “Shallow” – turns a “stage debut” cliché into one of the most indelible screen moments of the entire year.
It takes a real artist to make a premise so familiar feel so personal. This one has two artists at its core: Lady Gaga and actor-now-director Bradley Cooper. Gaga may be the one with minimal screen experience (this is her first major leading role), but it’s Cooper – despite already boasting three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor – who’s the revelation.
That’s true not only for what he accomplishes behind the camera but, perhaps even more so, in front of it.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a bluesy rock singer that still packs out big venues (and yes, that’s Cooper singing. He and Gaga both sang live on set.). He’s also an alcoholic who swaggers through life in a constant inebriated haze; even when he’s sober he appears hung over. Yet he’s functional and, by professional accounts, still successful. But his self-destructive fire is the kind that burns hot and fast. It seems only a matter of time before it burns out.
After a show, Maine drops into a cabaret bar for a few drinks where Ally (Lady Gaga) is on stage, a local unknown who croons “La Vie en Rose” with heart, soul, and a flawless voice. We know where this is going: Ally becomes Jackson’s discovery, she ascends to pop music stardom, and they fall in love. His drunkenness, however, may jeopardize it all, even as he remains a selfless artist and mentor, always encouraging Ally toward artistic and personal integrity over brand-driven calculations.
The script hits the standard beats and pitfalls you’d expect but, instead of driving ahead as a predictable plot machine, those beats serve merely as occasional connective tissue. It’s the long, patient, yet powerful stretches between those beats that set this movie apart, and elevates it, as an unexpectedly rich character study.
The formula, in fact, is in no hurry to get going. The film’s first half-hour is, in essence, Jackson and Ally getting to know each other on the night that they meet. That’s it. But it’s mesmerizing. We’re falling in love with their falling in love, as it happens, in near-real time.
It’s that kind of care and focus that takes a thrice-made story and turns its archetypes into two very specific people. Stardom and its pitfalls really are just the periphery and milieu; first and foremost, A Star Is Born is about these two people, and their love story.
By the time the actual narrative shifts into gear, we are completely on-board with the relationship that drives it. Then as the plot builds, unfolds, takes its turns and ponders its themes, the love story isn’t marginalized or lost. It’s at the center of everything that happens, and what everything revolves around.
The tension between career-savvy compromises and holding to your artistic truth is made more resonant and relevant with Gaga in the role, someone who’s undoubtedly experienced the same struggles. And it’s in that tension that Jackson is able to best express his love, support, and belief in Ally.
Cooper’s “drunk” is particularly convincing, too, humanized rather than romanticized, and never a desperate, garish showcase. A devotee of “The Method” who counts De Niro and Pacino among his idols, Cooper has strained to match them in the past. Here – for the first time – he does, going beyond a persuasive take on a character to becoming completely submerged and lost in a role. Bradley Cooper is gone; Jackson is all that we see.
A big part of what makes him so visceral (aside from not “playing up” the inebriation but, instead, actively trying to harness and control it) is how Cooper channels co-star Sam Elliott’s persona into Jackson’s, in a way that reaps more rewards than just making them believable siblings (which is no small bonus, I might add).
Elliot plays Jackson’s much-older brother and manager Bobby, and Cooper’s affectation of him – which is similarly effective to how Tom Hanks integrated the slow, deliberate essence of the young actor who played Forrest as a boy in Forrest Gump – is more than gravel-drawled Elliott mimicry. It informs the entire basis of where Cooper goes psychologically, not just vocally or physically, and allows Cooper to transform to a degree that he never has before. It’s an inspired spark that Cooper cobbles, hones, and holistically embodies into an absolutely stunning metamorphosis.
Lady Gaga is transcendent herself, but I’d be feigning awe if I said I was shocked. Even as I find her own popstar image to be mostly bizarre, the breadth of her expression – which has included an album of standards with Tony Bennett – has proven Gaga to be much more than some Madonna-knockoff provocateur. She is a serious (and seriously talented) singer / performer / artist. Honestly, her turn here isn’t a surprise but simply a confirmation that she’s the real deal.
As a director, Cooper doesn’t break new ground, but he fearlessly goes for the jugular, embracing a level of melodrama that other directors run from and fear. Great actors, though, have an intuitive impulse for precisely-tuned melodrama, one they can honestly access and explore. It can empower them to become superb filmmakers, too.
And when the ego is in check (as it is for Cooper), a would-be vanity project becomes a generous collaboration between co-stars, including Elliott and Dave Chappelle who, even in intermittent supporting roles, are given crucial moments to carry.
A melodrama made with earnest conviction, A Star Is Born is a genre movie that doesn’t know it is one. The best genre classics across film history – The Dark Knight, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, Psycho, 2001, and more – are just as triumphantly oblivious, even in their mastery.