Director: Bradley Cooper
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott
Bradley Cooper, the tall, charming, good-looking Hollywood A-lister here directs the fourth or fifth iteration of A Star Is Born to appear over the past 80 years (depending on your count) and the song remains the same. Established male star discovers a poor, undervalued female talent. He raises her up. They fall in love. It gets tumultuous. Tears are shed.
On paper it doesn’t sound all that special. Another rehash of the same old story about the pitfalls of celebrity told by and starring a big celebrity. Tinseltown eating itself. The old ouroboros of sex and drugs and rock and roll. And Cooper is so unassuming. For all his qualities listed at the top there, dynamism isn’t often one of them. He’s a safe bet. So who would’ve guessed he’d make something that flies so close to greatness first time out the gate as director?
Given its subject, Cooper’s A Star Is Born plays resolutely by the rules, throwing you in with an unlikely meet-cute (Cooper’s alcoholic rocker Jackson Raines discovers Lady Gaga’s penniless Ally while taking an unwitting detour to a drag queen bar), shading in the patchwork details of her working class life and family, applying similar sketching to his misunderstood isolation. There are songs (some of them belters), of course there are montages. And the melody is exactly as you’d expect. As you’ve seen before. You know a verse leads to a chorus. You can hear the bridge coming before it arrives. The crescendo’s where you think it’s gonna be.
But damn if Cooper’s celebration of these tropes doesn’t light a fire. His film has Oscar glory in its sights, but instead of feeling like bait, it more sincerely shows affection for the films that came before it, from the myriad musical romances of the thirties, through to the mascara-soaked melodramas of Bob Fosse and beyond. His film swells with feeling for the razmatazz of an arena concert, an open air festival, a tour bus cruising through the desert. It sees America like a classic rock compilation, the way Forrest Gump does (and in Eric Roth it shares a screenwriter). And it loves a love story.
For an hour its faultless, more or less. Jackson is a bit Gump-ish… if Forrest had been prone to pill-popping benders. He’s kind-hearted and filled with inspirational truisms. He’s also incredibly charming, and his impulsiveness catches Ally off guard. He seems to steer her and she is very easily led. But he’s offering her a whirlwind; a fantasy. He’s not too far removed from a Christian Gray figure, if you break it down.
So now there’s a Venn diagram between Forrest Gump and Christian Gray with Bradley Cooper standing in the middle that you have to deal with.
Gaga, as Ally, is a revelation. Cooper is his best in years – all sunburned and gravel voiced – but Gaga owns the movie. The way the title leisurely surrounds her tells you she’s destined to. It also sets the tone for the movie’s sprawl, which makes 132 minutes feel like 180. And for a while that’s no bad thing.
The two have such agreeable chemistry together. Jackson and Ally’s long first night is all kinds of perfect, from her showstopping rendition of “La Vie En Rose” to some ad-hoc wound dressing with frozen peas and a roll of tape. We follow them right through til dawn and its magical. This is the stuff of fairy tales, and it reaches a hair-raising apex when Jackson invites Ally on stage to sing her song “Shallow” (coming to a top 10 near you). There’s something wistfully nostalgic about how A Star Is Born plays for big emotions like this. Without superheroes. Without irony. Cooper’s film is such a goofy, lovable throwback.
But when the bubble bursts, the film loses its way precisely because their chemistry is impinged upon. Rafi Gavron’s entrance as odious star manager Rez marks the beginning of this restless stretch of the film, which itemises the increasing (inevitable?) distancing of the two leads; as Jackson spirals into addiction and Ally makes further concessions to chase fame.
In 2018 it feels somewhat stale for Ally to show such a disarming lack of agency about her course. She acquiesces, often thrown out of her comfort zone by controlling men in acts of manipulation. Cooper’s film manages to feel timely, however, because neither of these dominating males are ultimately allowed to get away with it. The audience plays judge and Jackson and Rez are placed in their boxes accordingly. Still, one can predict criticism rising from some quarters over how Ally’s journey to stardom is so often taken out of her hands.
Perhaps that’s the point Cooper and Gaga are trying to make.
With momentum slipping away, the midsection of A Star Is Born becomes episodic, cliffnoting the events that tabloids would carry were they a real celebrity couple. Some subplots fail to ignite or produce a substantive baring on the whole (great as he is, Sam Elliott might as well not be here). Not for nothing, Cooper nails the finale, hooking right back into those big, big emotions, acknowledging the path taken by the 1976 film, but finding his own, slightly different one. Once again Gaga is allowed to take the audience’s breath away. There’ll be few dry eyes in the house.
A few artful set-ups aside, Cooper’s direction is assured but not showy, largely in the thrall of Gaga. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, meanwhile, provides a succession of frames that feel iconic without breaking the moment. He especially excels here at catching the neon scuzz of nightlife and the ordinariness of places in which extraordinary things are happening.
That’s the wish-fulfillment of A Star Is Born. That it also provides heartache and tragedy is part of the deal signed on for. But that’s also part of the wish. This is a relationship melodrama that runs the gamut. Even if some smaller beats don’t quite register and story strands are left in entropy… when Cooper achieves liftoff, he positively soars.