A Star is Born (2018)
Dir. Bradley Cooper; Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott
[4 out of 4 stars]
I have had, still do, and will always have a soft spot for stories of high passion and deep tragedy. Blame it on Casablanca (1942), the ultimate story of giving up the romance for the cause, being one of my formative films, but I am drawn to them. There is something about the raw and honest nature of the genre that finds ways to draw viewers in and guide us through loving and losing. It need not be simply between two people: I find Cinema Paradiso (1988), a film about losing innocence, a home, and a love of movies as affecting as The Way We Were (1973), which focuses on the more traditional story of the meet, the romance, and the falling out. From its first production in 1937, A Star is Born has grown to inhabit the upper tier of the genre. Remade in 1954, 1976, and now 2018, it tells the fable-like tale of an imploding male celebrity (movie stars in the first two and musicians in the second two) who discovers a younger, stabler woman who rises as he falls. It has been tweaked in each era to reflect the current trends in show business, most easily reflected in the leads; Janet Gaynor and Fredric March giving way to Judy Garland and James Mason, who in turn would later be replaced by Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, all stars of their day. Now, for 2018, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga step onto the stage, and my oh my how they deliver.
Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a faded rock star, a man whose face shows the years of touring, drugs, and booze that have let him with the permanent appearance of a disheveled cowboy by way of Keith Richards. It is a look Jeff Bridges sculpted for his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart (2009). We see him first on stage, playing for a stadium crowd of screaming fans. At the shows close, he trudges to his Escalade and starts swigging liquor from a near empty bottle. His older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) acts as his manager, hardly able to keep his brother together. Jackson is not a picture of health. Ally (Gaga) is a waitress across town, belittled by her hothead boss, stuck in a job she does not enjoy. Neither seem happy, and by one of those wonderful run-ins movies give us, they find each other in a drag bar. Ally steps on stage to sing “La Vie en Rose,” and as he watches her, listening to her voice soar from note to note, Jackson comes alive. Their romance is, of course, secured soon after, and when Jackson learns Ally is a songwriter he looks to foster her talent. He brings her on stage to sing one of her songs with him, and from there her stardom launches skyward. As Ally grows into the role of up-and-coming star, Jackson gradually succumbs to his booze, pills, and hearing loss from all the years of stadium concerts, all while the two stay together as man and wife.
Stories like this always toy with the line between a heightened but believable emotional register and the realm of overblown melodrama. In my eyes, it that seems to stay on the right side of that split a movie must have performers who know when to simmer and when to let loose. In Cooper and Gaga, A Star is Born has the most adept pair to step into the roles, and the power of both performances is exhilarating, each complimenting and elevating the other. Love stories do not work without a level of chemistry and raw believability, and these two find it with each other in droves. Over the years of A Star Is Born being developed and finally seeing the light of day many stars have been attached to step into the roles, and even with names like Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio having been in the running, it is difficult to imagine anyone else after seeing Cooper and Gaga together. Like James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954), or Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were (1973), Gaga and Cooper have that rare thing you cannot prepare for or rely on: chemistry. Watching them move from the puppy love stage of first sight, through the triumphs and failures of their music careers, and settling into a relationship that confronts everything from alcoholism to award shows both capture some core romantic essence that you cannot quite describe.
Many of the reviews and articles on the movie have used the same word to qualify Gaga’s performance: “revelatory.” I will use it again. Anyone who has listened to her music knows she can go toe-to-toe with the best, but the disappearing act that Gaga achieves by shedding the often bizarre tenor of her real-world persona to immerse herself in this role is breathtaking. Ally is a passionate and fiery singer who has spent a life being beaten up by those who undervalue her: she tells Jackson how “almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded but they didn’t like the way I look.” Later on in their night, she and Jackson sit in the parking lot of a grocery store, a field trip necessitated when Ally punched an over-eager fan crowding Jackson at a bar. He wrapped her hand with gauze and peas so it wouldn’t swell, and as they sit she begins to write a song, singing out the words and melody bit by bit. She is hesitant, eyes closed, singing quietly, but then she stands, filling the parking lot with her voice and her presence. It is rather like watching a bird hatch, seeing her swell into herself. These musical scraps becomes “The Shallow,” the first song she sings on stage with Jackson just a day later. Standing on the stage, reticent at first until Jackson begins to play the song, she steels herself and walks up to microphone. As she sings this song, Gaga affects ticks of nerves, a building confidence, and the final, galvanized eruption of song and passion. The camera hardly leaves her face during the performance, and she is utterly captivating through every emotion, burying her hands in her face until they end up stretched out at her sides, as if she is flying on the high of her musical release. There are too many moments to count where Gaga made me laugh, smile, and cry in this movie, but suffice to say the way she charts Ally’s development as a performer, a romantic partner, a daughter, and a woman trying to balance the all-consuming world of fame is enthralling. You can feel her rage when Jackson stumbles around drunk after a concert just as you can steep in the sorrow she radiates at the end of their tragic run. Her performance is wondrously calibrated, from facial expressions to vocal inflections.
Beside her, and pulling triple duty as director, writer, and co-star, Cooper is thoroughly convincing as Jackson Maine. Kristofferson introduced the image of tattered rockstar to A Star is Born, but I think it is fair to say that Cooper perfected it. He holds his body in the way one would imagine a battered cowboy would, someone who has been thrown from a horse so many times his pieces don’t quite settle back together. Between cortisone shots, narcotics, and alcohol, Maine copes with a general aura of chronic pain never specified, a state paired with progressive hearing loss that stems from tinnitus and all his years on stage. As Ally plays star-making gigs on SNL and at the iHeartRadio festival, he recedes from the sold-out stages of the first act to playing pharmaceutical conferences and gets bumped from lead singer to backup guitarist in a Roy Orbison tribute. He is self-destructive, and it is made all the sadder because of the moments of joy and wonder we see him share with Ally. Watching him watch her in that first performance is captivating, for Cooper slowly loosens his shoulders, opens his eyes, smiles, and sees her in a way that to me seems the closest a performer has come to affecting ‘love at first sight.’ Yet he can never escape the demons, and they lead him to stumble drunkenly around stage while Ally receives an award. He has embarrassed her with his alcoholism and come close to torching what’s left of his own career. Cooper captures the drunken slurring and movement, but he also imbues with an angry weariness. Maine does not drink to party, he drinks to cope, and Cooper holds his body in a way that conveys the pain that Maine carries. Just as Gaga takes Ally convincingly from self-conscious and stifled to assertive pop star, Cooper embodies the ache of a final spiral.
A pivotal supporting aspect of both performances, nonetheless, is the music they sing and play. Ally’s rise is linked to her time on stage, and Jackson’s crumbling is tied to the quality with which he plays his music: formerly an imposingly talented musician, the booze often leaves him unable to complete a guitar riff or vocal line. Furthermore, much of the tension that enters into their marriage later on comes from Jackson’s disapproval of the songs Ally chooses to record and perform. All of the music in the film is written by the trio of Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson (Willie Nelson’s son), and the team effort allows for a variety of genres and moods to percolate throughout the runtime: “The Shallow” is a transcendent duet, sparse in its orchestration to feature Gaga’s inimitable range, and Cooper’s scratchy yet assured baritone (who knew he could sing!); Cooper shreds and belts on the hard-rocker “Alibi”; and Gaga delivers one of the great musical moments in the cinematic oeuvre with the elegeic “I’ll Never Love Again.” We have had a dearth of dependably written movie musicals of late, with The Greatest Showman (2017) and La La Land (2016) being examples of those that provided a handful of solid songs a piece, but few that feel like they have substantial staying power. A Star is Born delivers no fewer than eight original tracks, and one particular Edith Piaf cover, that feel integral to understanding the story as much as they are lovingly crafted hits. “The Shallow” seems poised to do for Gaga what “Evergreen” did for Streisand: bring her the Oscar for “Best Original Song.” Do yourself a favour and listen to the whole soundtrack.
The last revelation of the film is that Cooper is not only a marvelous actor but also a talented director. A Star is Born is that rare example of an actor turning a directing debut into an assured and poignant film. I say rare because for every triumph like the spine-tingling darkness of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), there is the work emblematic of growing pains, much like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), where Parker pulled the same triple duty as Cooper but seemed to be spread too thin to stick the landing. this is not to say that Cooper is without faults: the second act plays on about 15 minutes too long, and some conversational scenes fall into the humdrum of shot-reverse-shot for their entirety. Yet, these qualms are forgivable, especially in a first-time director, when so much around them works so well. For example, Cooper establishes a distinct way of shooting musical performances that distinguishes Jackson’s rocky ones from the smoothness of he and Ally together. In the performances before she steps on stage with him, Cooper gets the camera in tight shots, and yet obscures his face with blasting lights all around him, and cuts so often it’s hard to get stock of where he really is on stage. When Ally is with him, the camera lingers, the lights are mellower, and we can easily locate them in relation to one another.
Elsewhere, Cooper and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has turned in similarly wonderful work on pieces like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010), find ways to turn the presence of red light into an evolving motif. When Jackson and Ally first lay eyes on each other in the club, it is saturated with a rich red, a look that reoccurs when they are on stage together for the first time, seemingly marking the color as expressing their growing passion. Then it shifts, reappearing on a night at home when Jackson is dangerously drunk or backstage when Ally performs and he starts drinking, suddenly aligned with the self-destruction that reared up after the excitement of a new love tempered. The light seems to struggle between the two, coming back in moments of tenderness and strike alike, until its final use in Jackson’s lowest moment. It is a small touch, but it brings a thematic nature to the direction that distinguishes Cooper’s style as expressive even in this first outing. Here’s hoping it’s not his last turn behind the camera.
I left the theater after seeing this movie a messy ball of emotions, something that I quite expected, hence a few tissues stashed in my coat pockets for the walk home. It is a mark of a great movie when it lingers with you, images, lines, and shots filtering into your thoughts throughout the days and weeks after you’ve seen it. It has been over a week since I saw A Star is Born, and I have yet to pass a day without a moment or two when I found myself reflecting on it. Alongside all of the aforementioned reasons, I attribute this feeling to the promise of future projects that A Star is Born suggests, for this movie has trumpeted the arrival of Lady Gaga the actress and Bradley Cooper the director. If this movie is any indication of what each is capable of, I exuberantly await their next projects.