A Star is Born,as the fourth iteration of this story, needed to breathe new life into the reincarnatio, an idea that the film references when talking about the familiar and repetitive nature of music. There are only so many notes that can be hit, chords that be played; it’s less about who is singing the song or directing the story but more about what the artist is trying to convey and if it bears any weight in a landscape oversaturated with talented artists trying to get their stories to be heard. Bradley Cooper, making his directorial debut, justifies this adaptation with a soulful and enthusiastic approach, with a tight and expressively directed film that derails once the narrative shifts its focus from a relationship drama about similarly minded musicians into one about the charade of fame and enabling toxicity of show business.
Jack (Cooper) is a popular country singer-songwriter who has seen better days and has spent even more at the bottom of a bottle (be it pills,booze or both.) One night on a spur of the moment frantic search for more mind-numbing alcohol, he runs into a local drag bar where Ally (Lady Gaga) is allowed to sing on Friday nights due to her spectacular voice. The two bond, fall in love and make music together, all leading to Ally’s eventual stardom and Jack’s continual spiral of self-destructive behaviors.
Everything leading up until the much hyped about moment in the trailer where Ally joins Jack onstage for the first time is a whirlwind of joyful optimism and hopeless romanticism, Cooper truly believing in two humans ability to connect over a shared love of music and ability to tell their truth through it. Their first 24 hours together, culminating in a transcendentally euphoric performance which shines a direct spotlight on Gaga’s chill inducing vocals, are the strongest portions of the film. Any moment Cooper and Gaga share the stage is magical as that’s where Gaga is the most natural. Their chemistry ignites the screen and the film all but lives and breathes by it, meaning any time their storylines diverge the film loses some of its magnetism.
The script is wildly uneven, with declarative statements and rash behavior masked as character traits rather than the plot convenience stepping points that they are. The lows lag behind but the highs are immersive, open and ready for the audience to fall headfirst into embracing this all consuming love story. While the story is clearly top heavy with strong moments, the technical aspects shine throughout, in particular Matthew Libatique’s cinematography which grants the film a grainy surface that makes even the flashiest, most star studded moments seem whiskey drenched. Much of the first half is shot through the lens of a hangover so old its become the norm or the drunken high of finding true love, both dizzying in their effect. The film embraces color, from the dusty oranges and browns of the avenues they play in, to the vibrancy of Cooper’s ice blue eyes that convey so much through a character who verbalizes so little, or the technicolor get ups that signify Ally’s descent into super pop stardom. Libatique and Cooper embrace the glitz and the glamor while never forgetting the salt of the earth roots its main character came from, or the melancholy that persists through Jack’s music.
Gaga, a casting choice many were (fairly) skeptical about leading up until the premiere, is impressive aside from a few unnatural line readings and the greatest thing she manages to accomplish is making us forget her pop star status, believable playing the green performer. Cooper, to the detriment of the third act, steals the film as Jack, equal measures attentive as he can be cruel and as quick to bolster as he is to cut down when under too strong the influence. It’s his best, most layered performance to date and while it’s far from a vanity performance, he’s so good that Ally’s individual story doesn’t work as well without it. So much of Jack’s story is told in whispers or half truths, unexpected declarations of past pain and current love, while Ally is an open book from beginning to end. His relationship with his brother (Sam Elliot – equally wonderful) is especially potent and could fill an entire film.
If there’s a quibble with the start of the romance it’s dialogue that errs on the side of disconcertingly paternal on Jack’s part and an unwillingness to back down on his own beliefs being seen as romantic opposed to pushy, but it’s backed up by Cooper and Gaga’s winsome connection and further development where she gives as good as she gets and Cooper acts more as Gaga’s support, continually in awe of her, rather than a controlling, easily jealous husband. Her triumphs are hers and his demons his and it’s the greatest accomplishment of the script.
With explosive songs and an engaging romance at the center of a crowd drawing drama, A Star is Born doesn’t necessarily give new legs to an old story, but it makes up for any redundancies with its soulful intent and committed performances. It’s a film that dares to go big, bold and sincere, classical, modern and haphazard in equal measures. It may not go down as one of the greats but like many a song over the decades, when the right note in the film swings big, it soars.
This is a reprint from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival