A Star Is Born (2018): Big Screen Review

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” These are the words of a Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) song, and it encapsulates not just the spirit of this version of A Star is Born, but of all the previous three times this story has been told. However, unlike in 1937, 1954, and 1976, this is the first time where it feels like the director is truly taking that message to heart as an elegy not just of a falling star, but a way of being.

We encounter Jackson Maine as the lights go up on this movie and in an instant know who this person is. He stumbles onto the stage, locates his drink hidden behind some speakers and takes a swig before reaching for his pills and popping some in. But then he steps behind his mic and magically he turns into a rock star, a transformation so swift that it cannot happen without years of experience turning this persona on instantly. He is a man so versed with being on the stage that it holds no more magic for him. He is held up by his fame, but is also being killed by it. He is the rough and tumble rock star, a throwback to a bygone era when stardom and self-abuse seem to go hand-in-hand.

After another impressive but personally meaningless performance he stumbles into a hole in the wall bar which turns out to be a drag club where he witnesses a performance by the honorary drag queen who turns out to be none other than Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who seems as far from stardom as humanly possible. The setting is obviously a foreign one for Jackson, and is as clear a sign of his increasingly diminished relevancy, but Ally’s performance obviously transcends the unfamiliar locale and Jackson becomes enamored by what he witnesses: the prodigious talent of someone who not only can perform music but who innately understands music’s mysterious power. And so with their paths crossed, their attraction to each other begins as does our journeys with them as they navigate their relationship with each other and their eventual relationship with fame.

This is of course not a revolutionary story. It is, as I mentioned right at the top, the third remake of A Star Is Born and hews very closely to those previous iterations. Even if it didn’t, the archetype of the rising and falling star is one anyone who has spent a decent amount of time watching movies will be familiar with. However despite the obvious well-worn path this film treads, there are several things that makes this movie a vital and worthy inheritor of its title.

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© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment INC.

First, the principal creators of this movie are people who are inherently versed in fame culture. Bradley Cooper steps into the director’s chair for the first time, but he has long graced tabloid covers and walked the red carpet in his illustrious career as a an A-level actor. Meanwhile first time actor Lady Gaga is one of the key pop stars who pretty much revolutionized the fame industry, propelling pop music into the conversation of art. Both of them have seen their stars rise and fall over the years and both have had to live under the heavy scrutiny of the public eye. And both of them bring that knowledge with them to give an honest and raw authenticity to A Star is Born. It is evident that these are not just people who are play-acting being stars, but are drawing from their own well of experience. This is crucial because A Star Is Born requires both these leads to do some heavy, heavy lifting – this movie rises and falls on the believability of their performance – and fortunately both of them deliver.

For Cooper this is slightly less surprising as his recent stint with David O. Russell (in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy) have afforded him the title of “prestige actor”. Yet it is still astonishing the level by which he inhabits the role of Jack, disappearing beneath his alcohol-greased hair and sun-burnt skin, and playing his downward spiral with a level of ease that would not have been evident based on his previous performances. Here he trades the slightly manic nature of his previous roles for something more melancholy, and as a result reveals to us a new level of depth to his talent.

But it is Lady Gaga whose performance is a revelation. When news of her casting was first announced, I will admit to feeling trepidatious. I had no doubt she would nail the singing portion of her program, but it was the actual acting that I was worried about; how could someone whose whole schtick was in giving us a heavily manicured and produced persona provide us a believably raw performance, especially when she had no such experience before? I needn’t have worried. Lady Gaga reins in her undeniable charismatic persona to give in Ally a believably vulnerable performance of someone who slowly grows into her stardom. When Ally first has her great coming-out performance (you’ll know it when you see it), it is astonishing because if you close your eyes you will hear nothing but the powerhouse vocals that has made Gaga such a successful artist, but her physical performance onstage is one of uncertainty and vulnerability as she effortlessly portrays someone who is not yet comfortable with crowds and fame, someone who is insecure about her own abilities. Where Cooper basically has to portray a static character and make Jackson interesting for two hours, it falls on Gaga’s Ally to provide all the narrative thrust; hers is the character who has to change, shift, and grow as the movie goes on. And thanks to Cooper’s hyper-intimate direction, with most shots coming in close-up, he gives Gaga nowhere to run – the degree of difficulty for her debut performance is astonishingly high – and yet she delivers. It is an astonishing debut and while it remains to be seen if it will stand as one of the best performances of the year, there is no doubt she would be a popular awards contender.

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© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment INC.

If Gaga’s debut is obviously impressive, Bradley Cooper also deserves special praise for his assured debut behind the camera. This is a big sweeping old-fashioned melodrama, and yet Cooper turns it into an impressionistic and lyrical tale. His camera hangs out close to Jackson and Ally, sometimes intrusively so, placing us firmly in their shoes. Even during the big musical numbers, he intentionally keeps our perspectives firmly on the people onstage – we experience fame like how they experience it, and not through the lens of an outsider. It is an isolating, sobering, and intimate look at fame. While I’m still not too sure what Cooper’s directorial voice is yet, he shows that he can be a highly competent custodian of another’s source material.

Cooper should also be commended because he takes this well-worn tale and introduces a healthy dose of nuance and complexity to it. In particular, he avoids the old music cliche of placing the rugged and “authentic” music stylings of Jackson Maine and his like on a pedestal while dismissing pop music as a lower art-form. Too often the charge that “musician-led” music is better than pop has basically functioned as a dog-whistle elevating the arenas of music dominated by men (rock, folk, country etc.) while putting down the arenas of music where women have found a place and been more welcomed. Cooper is wise to realize that in 2018 the arguments against pop music as a legitimate and equally valid art-form are outdated, especially in the age of albums like Beyonce’s Lemonade and more importantly the entire musical career of Lady Gaga among many other examples. He portrays the music industry as neither something to be stubbornly resistant nor spinelessly submissive to – but as a minefield that can be negotiated and navigated while still maintaining one’s artistic “authenticity”. And by doing that, he allows his version of A Star is Born to be perhaps the most ideologically complex of all. Every previous iteration of A Star is Born is focused on the fall of an aging star who is replaced basically by a younger version of that same kind of star. Cooper’s is the first that explores the complex emotions brought about by the fact that not only is Jackson Maine’s personal star fading, but that also his type of star and the kind of fame he engendered is fading too. Ally replaces him in a different and new way – in a form that Jackson can barely understand let alone adapt to. The eventual conflict between Jackson and Ally then is not mere professional jealousy, but the thrashings of something radical and new usurping the place of the old and familiar.

(Note: Alison Wilmore goes into much more detail about the movie’s relationship to pop music in her excellent article on Buzzfeed. I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest you check it out.)

The final piece of the puzzle for this movie is the music itself. Many a film about “great artists” has been felled because the actual “art” at the centre – be it visual, musical, or otherwise – fails to live up to its lofty expectations (here’s looking at you Music and Lyrics). Fortunately that is not the case here as A Star is Born features a hall-of-fame worthy soundtrack. But more than the general excellence of the songs (yes, even that butt song) what elevates this soundtrack is that the movie seems to fundamentally understand how music works. Just about every musical number is a highlight because there is a level of performative authenticity in each of these scenes. Cooper keeps the camera firmly focused on the musicians on stage, showing us the experience of a concert or musical performance from their standpoint, and more importantly capturing the chemistry between performing musicians. Similarly the actual sound design for these performances are some of the best I’ve ever heard in a movie (it is no coincidence that Live Nation Productions is one of the production companies), giving the already powerful vocals of Lady Gaga a visceral power while also showcasing that Mr. Cooper can in fact hold a decent tune himself. The end result are a series of performances that are nothing short of electrifying.

This is not to say that the movie is flawless. After the breakneck and exhilarating speed with which the movie propels us to Ally’s great coming-out, the movie then sags heavily in its middle act. This is partly because as great as the performances of the two central leads are, they occupy a story that is still only a couple of notches above cliche. You can feel Cooper struggling to maneuver the movie in the middle act into something innovative and new, yet be pulled back by the source material’s gravitational pull into familiarity. This problem is further exacerbated because Ally and Jackson are surrounded by a shallowly defined group of supporting players who function as mere plot devices. Just about every other character introduced is there to further the plot along. This is a shame because some great actors like Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott, and Dave Chapelle are given very little to do beyond helping to produce and resolve drama in the central couple when necessary. In particular Lady Gaga’s manager Rez Gavron is such a cartoonishly evil villain who seems completely out of place in the rest of the narrative – an external force to tear apart Jackson and Ally when Jackson’s own personal demons render such a villain wholly unnecessary.

However these complaints are few. While there is hardly anything groundbreaking about the filmmaking, there is something inherently thrilling about seeing Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga expand their artistic horizons and as a result to witness their personal stars being born (in directing and acting respectively) before our eyes. And while A Star is Born is an old-fashioned melodrama, it is dressed up enough to feel new and vital – a welcome throwback to the kind of adult-oriented populist entertainment that used to populate the box office in years past and a welcome pushback against the conventional wisdom that the only movies that sell today involve capes and cowls.

Rating: ★★★★

Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by Bradley Cooper

Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chapelle.

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