At one point near the end of the fourth iteration of A Star Is Born, a character states, “Music is essentially just the same 12 notes. 12 notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, and all an artist can do is share how they see those 12 notes.” It seems corny to compare this to the film’s attempt to remake a remake of a remake of a remake, and in theory, that’s a corny line. And yet, it works. I can’t tell you why exactly. Maybe it’s because that’s been my theory on storytelling for quite some time. Maybe it’s because in the moment, it sounds honest and sincere. Or maybe it’s because Bradley Cooper’s film as a whole is an astoundingly honest, well-crafted drama, one that evokes everything from the whimsy of La La Land to the sobering reality of Leaving Las Vegas.
Country star Jackson Maine (Cooper) is at the end of his rope. While he’s still managing to bring in the crowds at his concerts, his heart isn’t in the show anymore, his hearing is going from a bad case of tinnitus, and what little control he had over his heavy boozing and drug-ingesting is just about gone. However, one night, stumbling into a drag bar after a show to find a drink, he manages to hear Ally (Lady Gaga) performing the show’s sole live performance. After spending a magical, honest night together – a first for the both of them – Maine invites her on tour with him, and after she writes a song for the both of them, has her perform onstage with him. Soon Ally is a YouTube sensation with a record deal of her own. However, as her career skyrockets and his self-destructs, can their love sustain?
While A Star Is Born isn’t an original film (even before these three cinematic iterations, the general conceit has been around since the Greeks invented tragedy), Cooper intrinsically understands how to mine this concept for all its worth in order to help the film feel as fresh and alive as possible. The story has always relied on two halves that come together in the epic finale – the first a smart, intelligent industry satire, and the other a grand, melodramatic romance between two star-crossed lovers. And while this version doesn’t take the emphasis completely off of the satirical elements, it absolutely understands what audiences are here for, and it kicks that romantic dial all the way up to eleven. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry, with a capital EVERYTHING, and it shines through in almost every scene. Both the script and the direction make sure to set up their love honestly and realistically, and because of this, the first twenty minutes feel like an alcoholic Before Sunrise. This analogy may seem glib, but I can assure you, it is for that reason the rest of the film manages to work so well, and the reason a cynic like me can so easily get on board from the very beginning. By slowing things down and removing it from the action, as well as placing an emphasis on improvisational, honest dialogues, we get to bond with these characters before the romance takes root, before the satirical world we’re inhabiting takes root, and before any sense of drama or tragedy can come about. It’s just two incredibly attractive people talking about their childhoods and singing pretty. They’re not naïve about the situation they’re getting themselves into – unlike the original versions, she’s fully aware that she’s dating a famous drunk with daddy issues. However, this decision to dive straight into the deep end (“WATCH AS I DIVE IN!!!!!!!!”) allows us to bask in the cathartic nature of their passion. It makes scenes like Jackson removing Ally’s fake eyebrow incredibly sensual, while a moment involving a guitar string is so romantic, I physically swooned in the theater. And it makes the fights that they have all the more painful – because these two seem so in love, and know each other so well, they know how to hurt each other. That is the sign of a good movie fight, and in particular a good movie relationship. And even when you are well aware of how this story ends (after all, I’ve seen all four versions of this story – I knew what I was getting into), Cooper and Gaga sell it so well, it still manages to dig straight through your skin and into your heart.
Meanwhile, when Cooper does cop to the template of the original, he does his best to condense, rework, and revitalize the material enough to keep it feeling fresh and modern. The now-infamous “I just wanna take another look at ya” line from the trailer has appeared in every iteration of this story since 1937, but Cooper smartly finds a way to make it work in context, never feeling creepy or insincere. Characters ranging from the best friends of the female star to the studio producers overseeing the male are condensed and combined into one or two particular characters, streamlining the story and keeping things simple. And while the Grammys scene is the standout set piece of every iteration, Cooper has found a way to strip away the ickiness of the whole ordeal to get the point across, maintain the empathy of his two main characters, and to flaunt his abilities as a director with a complex series of cinematic choices. And he does it all while adding a new thematic component surrounding pop vs. rock, the fear of selling out, and whether art always needs to say something to be good (I love that, while I would still dance to the banger “Why Did You Do That?” you can just tell Gaga had a blast making it as intentionally terrible as possible. And just because the music industry satire is toned down doesn’t mean that it’s gone completely. A Star Is Born relishes in allowing Rafi Gavron to play music producer Rez as the perfect cross between douchebag music producers and tech bros, providing laughs as they try to completely alter everything that makes Ally great, from her sound to her look to the excessive use of background dancers. And it brilliantly brings an honesty to the modern music scene by incorporating different aspects of 2018 success – the effects of YouTube, Saturday Night Live performances, the recording of albums, filming at real rock concerts, etc. It all comes together to create a realistic, Altmanesque sense of whimsicality, grittiness, and ridicule. The one aspect I perhaps could have done without was the continuous assertion that in order to be a true artist, “people need to hear what you have to say.” I don’t dislike this line because I disagree, or because it’s cheesy, but because Cooper inserts this line into this script conservatively thirty times. It comes off less as a universal truth and more of the director’s attempt to defend himself from accusations that his vision may be extraneous. Still, it doesn’t prevent this film from feeling like a fresh, invigorating breath into the modern melodrama.
What is perhaps most shocking about A Star Is Born is how effortlessly the whole production comes off. Bradley Cooper is not a perfect first-time director – he’s not bad, just adequate. However, while he may not raise the bar here with an out-of-the-park auteurial vision, I do want to make it clear just how difficult this production actually was to pull off. Take a look at other actors-turned-directors, and observe the films they made for their first outing: Warren Beatty made the simple comedy Heaven Can Wait, Robert Redford made the straightforward drama Ordinary People, and Kevin Costner made the frank Western epic Dances With Wolves. While all of these films are good (to a degree), they are also fairly easy to make. Cooper not only goes big with a concert musical, he increasingly finds ways to up the ante on himself – he shoots live on location, he gets angles and edits that other directors wouldn’t bother considering, and he consistently pushes himself to his creative limits. Take, for example, a sequence after Ally and Jackson have a massive fight, and he stares at her off-screen, but she is reflected in the mirror in a distorted form. It’s an intelligent representation of what the alcohol is doing to his brain, and what it is doing to their relationship. Even if not every decision works brilliantly, I respect the fact that Cooper is TRYING things, and when they work, they work really well. Meanwhile, the technical work across the board is remarkably impressive, from the natural dialogue to the documentary-esque execution. Really, every detail on this film looks and sounds gorgeous. The camerawork is one-of-a-kind, capturing the whirlwind aspect of the relationship while still taking time to capture the beauty of this world – specifically, the camera loves Gaga, treating her like the royalty she is. Meanwhile, the editing is impeccable, especially on the musical sequences (although as much as it works in context, the “want another look at ya” scene is a very poorly edited Kuleshov Effect). And then there’s the soundtrack – my God the soundtrack. No movie – not even La La Land – has had this great an original soundtrack in at least twenty years. You’d have to go back to The Bodyguard to find a soundtrack of this magnitude, where every single original song was a work of f*cking art. Now, it’s worth noting that this soundtrack – and to a further extent, this movie – is kind of tailor made for me, considering my essential dichotomy is a love for folk/country music and a love for pop music, but I’d like to think this album would stand out no matter who is listening. After all, you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to not notice that when the duo first performs “Shallow,” the film’s big musical moment, it is true Movie Magic; a sexy, goosebumps-inspiring knockout that only comes along once every few years. I mean, at the end of the day, this movie is just plain old, well-made fun; and that’s the best kind there is.
As for the acting, this film is mostly a two-person show. I particularly want to give praise to Cooper, who is the soul of the film from beginning to end. Cooper combines the charm of James Mason with the swagger of Kris Kristofferson, cross-referencing it with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (a performance I consider the greatest of all time), and combining it all underneath the talent of his own umbrella. Cooper really plays drunk well, in a way that’s both fascinating and painful to watch, and when he takes the stage, he actually feels like a rock star – something a lot of actors don’t get right. However, perhaps his greatest asset is a talent he’s mastered through a career of romantic comedies: he knows how to look at his scene partner like she’s a f*cking queen. For a romance to work, you need to see the person looking at their partner like no one else exists, and that has always been Cooper’s strongest talent. It’s a testament to his abilities, and it allows his partner to shine that much brighter – not that Gaga actively needs his assistance. If Cooper is the soul of this film, Gaga is the heart. The best thing I can say about her is that she feels authentic. That may not sound like a lot, but think of all that requires. Without years in the industry and onscreen training, she has to find a way to create natural dialogue, human speech patterns and beats, and in her first big performance, she has to appear nervous, as if she hasn’t been performing in front of sold-out Super Bowl crowds for ten years. That’s a real accomplishment, and she pulls it off beautifully. Oh, and she has at least three fire performances, which helps. Meanwhile, Sam Elliott relishes the opportunity to have an actual role to chew on for the first time in years, and he has two scenes near the end that will devastate you. Oh, and he also helps make two of the film’s seemingly silliest decisions not only work in context, but build up to an emotional reveal. Now that’s talent. Amongst the smaller roles, Gavron is, as I mentioned, an entertaining douchebag, while best friends Anthony Ramos and an [underused] Dave Chappelle both pop up periodically to serve as grounding forces of humanity (Ramos in particular is delightful). And as much as I never thought I’d ever say these words, I found myself impressed by Andrew Dice Clay. That’s right, the dirty nursery rhymes guy. Dice Clay is unrecognizable as Ally’s father, and he relishes his performance as a big, loud, loving Italian man. He plays the role as someone who means well by his daughter, and actively cares and supports for her, but often can’t keep his big mouth shut. It’s a cute role, and while I could easily see any of the other actors up for it in the part (De Niro, Travolta, Turturro), there’s a bit of authenticity that Clay brings to it that I appreciate.
Like the characters themselves, A Star Is Born finds the perfect balance between “art” and “entertainment.” It takes just enough risks and stays just fresh enough to prove itself worthy of its predecessors, but isn’t afraid to take the mantle of “crowd-pleaser.” There’s a reason the old woman sitting next to me kept irritating me every two minutes – she was tapping her foot with pure exhilaration, basking in the pure delight of the shared communal experience. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give A Star Is Born is the fact that it is two hours and fifteen minutes long and feels like a tight ninety-five. It’s a film where no time is spared, where every minute is a joy, and where everyone can sit together to laugh, sing, cheer, and cry, often at the same time. A Star Is Born is a Movie’s movie, and for once, that doesn’t feel like condescension.