Bradley Cooper's directorial debut features strong performances and some catchy tunes, but he's just the opening act for Lady Gaga's revelatory breakout performance.
When that first teaser for Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born dropped in early June, jaws were justifiably dropped. The skepticism around the project up to that point was fairly justified – all signs pointed to it being a musty, murky vanity project from a movie star with delusions of filmmaking grandeur. But that trailer changed minds, a masterpiece of economic, emotional editing bolstered by two incredibly sensitive performances by Cooper and fame monster-turned-movie-star Lady Gaga and an absolute killer of a song in “Shallow.” It’s an extremely pleasant surprise to say that this version of A Star Is Born is a feature-length extension of that trailer’s brilliance: spectacular and emotional, albeit just as shallow as the title of its soon-to-be-hit song.
A Star is Born has been remade at least three times since the 1937 original – once in 1954 with Judy Garland, again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand, and here – but the basic story remains the same: a washed-up star with substance abuse problems finds (and falls in love) with a beautiful new discovery, whose own rise to fame clashes with her love’s subsequent fall from grace. In Cooper’s version, the ‘star’ in question is Ally (Gaga), a down-on-her-luck hotel waitress who moonlights at a drag bar singing Edith Piaf songs and lives with her limo driver father (Andrew Dice Clay), who constantly laments he could have been “better than Sinatra.”
Enter Jackson Maine (Cooper), an alcoholic country-rocker with shades of Eddie Vedder and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, a gravelly misanthrope whose booze-fueled antics and artistic temperament have driven away everyone else in his life except his long-suffering older brother/manager (Sam Elliott). After discovering her at the drag bar one night, he decides to bring her into his band, the two striking up a relationship in the process. However, as the world continues to fall in love with Ally, and Jack’s drinking problems coincide with the plateauing of his own career, their dynamic takes more than a few tragic turns.
The story’s an old-fashioned showbiz tale, as evidenced by the universality of its remakes – it’s a simple narrative of love, fame and tragedy, a glitzy soap opera that needs only a few tweaks to update it to whatever era in which it takes place. Cooper’s A Star is Born plants itself firmly in the age of social media and the deeper intertwining of music with commercialism. Ally’s rise to stardom takes the typical turns – corporate sponsorships, wardrobe, hair and branding carefully curated by an opportunistic publicist (Rafi Gavron), and even musical guest spots on Saturday Night Live. (Alec Baldwin hosts, naturally.) This is a necessary point of contention for Jack, who stubbornly values artistic integrity above anything – he consistently chastises Elliott’s character for having the voice of an angel, but nothing to say with it.
At times, it feels like Cooper’s own insecurities as a filmmaker coming forth; Cooper has the tools to be a filmmaker but seemingly scrambles for something to say. When Jack admits that all songs are written with “the same twelve notes, it’s all about how you play them,” it seems like A Star is Born pleading with the audience to take it seriously despite its status as the latest in a string of remakes. Even Ally’s arc seems to be Lady Gaga interrogating what it means to become Lady Gaga, as her career takes on increasing levels of glitz, publicity and persona-crafting. It’s rare for a film to be so subtextually about its own making, which paradoxically makes this treatment of A Star Is Born that much more fascinating.
Even if it doesn’t have much insight into the nature of fame beyond the basic soap-opera platitudes it tends to dabble in, it’s at least an impressive, magical showcase of technical prowess and performance. Cooper is great as always, even as you get used to the gravelly low register he gives his beleaguered musician; his musical prowess is certainly a pleasant surprise, and carries many of the film’s staggeringly great songs.
But as much as A Star is Born feels like a vanity project for Cooper, its greatest revelation is Gaga, who proves herself as dynamic an actress as she is a performer. Granted, this kind of role is firmly in her wheelhouse (and offers her many an opportunity to show off her considerable vocal chops), but her breakout performance is complex, stripped down, and nuanced, every gesture and line reading packed with meaning. In Ally’s first big number on a massive stage (the aforementioned “Shallow,” which better win Best Original Song or I swear to God), Gaga absolutely sells the feeling of incredible shock and surprise at the sensation of her own voice belting out the song’s rousing chorus. She can’t believe how good this feels, and neither can her audience.
Even in the film’s somber, more dramatic beats, she has effortless chemistry with Cooper, which is the real bread and butter of A Star is Born. While these two are the film’s central focus, they benefit greatly from sensitive supporting turns from Clay, Elliot and even Dave Chappelle as Jack’s childhood friend, who’s found the kind of simple stability that Jack longs for, but can never have.
On a technical level, the film more than makes up for its narrative simplicity with some staggering images courtesy of DP Matthew Libatique. Neon-soaked vamping in drag bars pairs organically with the kind of handheld concert footage you’d see on any given music documentary, and the two approaches feel sympatico. Jay Cassidy’s editing nails the feeling of timelessness that occurs on stage, breezing the audience through the most important parts of Ally and Jack’s relationship and career. (One match cut in particular during the film’s last musical sequence, a rousing love ballad flashing back to the tenderness of its creation, is sure to elicit some tears.)
Gaga co-wrote a majority of Star‘s original songs, and they’re almost all sure to be new classics. In addition to “Shallow,” there’s “By the Wayside” and Gaga’s show-stopping “I’ll Never Love Again” – all of which are hummable at the very least, and karaoke-bar classics in the making.
A Star is Born is a simple story told beautifully, and well worth all the hype it’s engendered. As much as we might like to poke fun at the idea of “visionary director Bradley Cooper,” it’s important to recognize when we, the cynics, have been proven wrong. At least in terms of its worth as a vehicle for Cooper the musician and director, and Lady Gaga the movie star, A Star is Born proves its worth a million times over.
A Star Is Born dives into the shallow in theaters Friday, October 5th.