In the span of eighty-one years, the bittersweet love story "A Star Is Born" has
been made into four Hollywood features, each one a multiple Oscar nominee or
winner; the 1937 original starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric Marsh, 1954's paired
Judy Garland with James Mason, and 1976's saw Barbra Streisand paired with Kris
Kristofferson. The narrative trajectory will be familiar for viewers who have
seen those previous renditions, but this 2018 update is one of the best, a
passionate, authentic, altogether relevant saga proving there is still plenty of
life left in this tale of fame, addiction, and sacrifice. The source of the
electricity radiating off the screen is twofold; Bradley Cooper's directorial
debut is so muscular and assured as to appear to be the work of an established
filmmaker, and the onscreen chemistry between himself and the surprising Lady
Gaga (2014's "Sin
City: A Dame to Kill For") is undeniable. They—and, really, the
entire cast—bring each moment to life, not a tinge of artifice to be found.
Not ready to call it a night after performing a big L.A. concert, hard-drinking
country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into a drag bar just in
time to watch the seductively voiced Ally (Lady Gaga) perform a cover of Edith
Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." He is instantly drawn to her, first for her singing
ability and stage presence, and even more so when he meets her for drinks
afterward sans make-up and hair dye. Ally is a struggling singer-songwriter who
has been told she's not pretty enough to make it in showbiz—a claim about which
Jackson staunchly disagrees. When Jackson coaxes Ally onto the stage to perform
an original song she shared with him the night before, it is the beginning of a
whirlwind romance between an established musician whose erratic behavior and
substance abuse are fast dragging him down and a rapidly rising star navigating
the tricky waters of a business threatening to steal away her individuality and
talent for mass-market, dime-a-dozen soullessness.
"A Star Is Born" works due to its tremendous soundtrack (much of the original
music was performed live during filming and co-written by Bradley Cooper and/or
Lady Gaga), but the lush, frequently memorable ear-worms wouldn't mean as much
were they not used in service of a worthwhile story and characters who resonate.
The relationship between Jackson and Ally beautifully takes its time, just as
the screenplay, credited to Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, is
interested in listening to them—their viewpoints, the give-and-take of their
burgeoning courtship, and their ultimate concerns for each other.
His voice a few octaves lower, much of his mannerisms surely not his own,
Bradley Cooper (2018's "Avengers:
Infinity War") becomes Jackson Maine through and through while
shedding all movie-star predilections except one: his innate charisma as a
performer who, here, cannot be caught acting. If Jackson becomes at all jealous
of Ally's success, it is overshadowed by his desire to see her prosper as
herself, appreciated for who she is and her own natural talents rather than as a
manufactured pop-princess whose songs no longer come from her heart. The film
wisely understands that although Jackson loves Ally, the demons he has been
battling are vicious and his disease one that not everyone is able to surmount.
Cooper achingly bares his soul in portraying Jackson, his pain and struggles
wholeheartedly sticking with the viewer after the end credits have rolled.
Perhaps even more eye-opening than Cooper's outstanding turn is Lady Gaga's;
save for a few bit parts and an impressively vampy Golden Globe-winning role on
"American Horror Story: Hotel," she has never been given the chance to truly
spread her wings as an actor. That someone of her larger-than-life caliber is
able to thoroughly disappear into the role of Ally to the point where one often
forgets it's Lady Gaga may be her greatest triumph. She is intuitive and giving
as an actor, someone who appears to be listening and responding and living each
moment for the first time. Gaga understands Ally's insecurities and her
professional drive while developing a character nevertheless separate from her
real-life persona. Just as she commands the stage, she devours the screen—not in
a scene-hogging way (she blends seamlessly into the rest of the ensemble), but
as someone undoubtedly meant to be exactly where she is. This will be the start
of an enduring screen career for her.
"A Star Is Born" is an emotionally intimate journey that makes itself feel like
an event. Quixotically lensed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the picture
paves a personal path while nevertheless paying tribute in naturalistic ways to
all past incarnations of this story. Surrounding the remarkable work of Cooper
and Gaga is an ace supporting cast led by Sam Elliott (2009's "Up in the Air"),
heartbreaking as Jackson's increasingly concerned older brother Bobby; Andrew
Dice Clay (2013's "Blue Jasmine"), warmly ingratiating as Ally's limo-driver
father Lorenzo; Anthony Ramos (2017's "Patti Cake$"), inviting and sympathetic
as Ally's best friend Ramonand and Dave Chapelle ( 1998's “You've Got Mail”).
For a film which so sublimely allows itself to breathe, covering expansive
territory in an economic, unrushed 139-minute package, only the crucial last ten
minutes feel a touch rushed. A poignant final scene comes too quickly,
undercutting the sheer catharsis director Bradley Cooper strives to capture.
Fortunately, all that Lady Gaga's Ally has been through and all she is about to
face head-on registers powerfully on her face and in her voice.
Well-made crowd-pleasing films always have a chance at attracting Oscar
attention, especially when they feature unexpectedly strong performances from
screen newcomers and focus on serious social issues. Additionally, Cooper is
well-liked in the industry. Using a term from yesteryear (which is, after all,
where A Star Is Born has its roots), this is a “three-hankie movie.” Even the
most hard-hearted and cynical viewer is likely to have an emotional reaction,
and this is as much a testimony to the way Cooper tells the tale as to the story