Review: A Star Is Born
Late in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, a character tells Ally (Lady Gaga) that music is just the same twelve notes and an octave, over and over again. It’s a story that’s told again and again, but what makes it exciting is the new ways people tell it.
The parallel is clear. A Star Is Born is a tale we’ve seen many times. Four different movies have told this story, the very first dating all the way back to 1937’s version starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.
Yet, it’s still a fascinating piece of fiction that keeps getting updated for modern times. And that’s exactly what Cooper does with his 2018 remake. There are some really fun modern twists on the story, like all the great drag bar scenes at the film’s start, the use of Saturday Night Live, and the genuinely bangin’ soundtrack tunes. The visual style of the film, too, is carefully crafted to imitate recent concert films and music videos during the performances and to feel almost uncomfortably intimate in the more private moments between Jackson (Bradley Cooper) and Ally, and these great cinematic choices are the kind that makes this film one of the best directorial debuts of the year.
Besides balancing visual languages, Cooper’s direction, and co-writing (shared with Eric Roth and Will Fetters), walks a careful tightrope throughout the film, keeping the film smart and dramatic as well as completely aware that you’ve probably heard this story before in one form or another. Even though you know exactly what cards are in his hand, he plays them so well and with such impeccable timing that knowing what’s coming has no effect on how powerful each beat feels. The film also manages to make the more unbelievable moments work, too, which is definitely due to its melodramatic tone. The moments of family drama between Jackson and his brother can feel out-of-the-blue and a little bizarre, but every performance is so fully committed that it always works, nonetheless.
And yeah, let’s talk about those performances. By now, most have heard about how good Lady Gaga is, but I’ll add my voice to the mix: she’s really, really good, y’all. Her performance is one of someone who has lived the situations and emotions Ally has gone through. Gaga has mastered, over years of her theatrical concerts, playing a character through the limiting actions of playing a piano and singing, and this film give her the perfect opportunity to shine in that role. Her performance scenes are nothing short of astounding, as the camera captures every little thing a performer feels on stage all within the subtly shifting expressions she gives as she sings. This is not the only way her stardom is used to the film’s advantage, though. By occasionally showing this person that the general public once objectified and insulted on a daily basis as a normal woman, without makeup, hair askew, about to tear into a big old plate of greasy diner food, we get a taste of Gaga as a real person. That makes the fictional version of her transformation into stardom hit that much harder. Just for that meta element of the film alone, it’s well worth checking out and watching in awe as she morphs right before your eyes.
The only other thing that could possibly eclipse Gaga, though, is Bradley Cooper himself. His performance became instantly iconic with the “I just wanted to take another look at you,” scene from the trailer, but it’s one that will undoubtedly grow even more so when it inevitably wins Cooper the lead actor Oscar. Jackson Maine is such a well-rounded, fully-realized character with a layered backstory and personality that gives Cooper something really special to work with. The nuance that he gives this performance is so much more impressive, too, when you get to the end credits and remember that Cooper’s also co-writing, directing, producing, and songwriting on this film. For other filmmakers that take on this many roles in one project, it’s so easy to not rein oneself in when actually giving the performance, which makes his balanced self-directed turn as Jackson as incredibly impressive as it is.
And friends, I feel I need to clear something up here: for the record, I was not one of those people who were sold on this film as soon as the first trailer released. I was extremely cynical about this film, even as I walked into the screening. But there’s something very heartfelt about this; it’s a true passion project if there ever was one. It’s the kind of project where you can feel the energy of how much genuine love there is for these characters and their story from everyone who was involved in making it. The ending might be a downer, but the craft and dedication on display are admirable and inspiring long after the credits roll.