The story of A Star Is Born is a well-worn fixture of Hollywood lore. A star on the decline meets and falls in love with a star in her ascendency, and together they try to navigate their way through the labyrinth of his addictions, her fame, and everything in between. It is a tale that has been retold time and again, from generation to generation, by names woven into the cinematic canon – Gaynor and March, Garland and Mason, Streisand and Kristofferson. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are the newest pair to provide their take on this story, and in so doing have delivered a film that is truly for the ages.
As coasting rock star Jackson Maine, Cooper is superb. He is every inch the hardcore, world-weary rocker the role requires him to be, with a commanding stage presence about him that really shines through in some of his solo numbers. The film’s opening sequence, which sees Jack performing the foot-thumping Black Eyes in front of masses of adoring fans, is a particular highlight, more so because Cooper sings every word live.
However, even more impressive is the fact that Cooper manages to make his character something none of his predecessors ever managed: likeable. For all his charm (“Hey! I just wanted to take another look at you”), he is a deeply troubled individual, plagued by childhood trauma, substance abuse and progressive hearing loss. There are moments in the film where Jack says and does some truly horrible things to those he loves, yet at no point do you ever start to dislike him. Instead, it’s clear that he is very much a victim of his own demons, and the vulnerability in Cooper’s performance perfectly captures this.
In stark contrast to Cooper’s forlorn Jack is Lady Gaga’s Ally, the singer he meets by chance one night and whose voice he instantly falls for. Her raw talent is as undeniable as it is compelling, and jaded though she may be by years of rejection from the music industry, she gradually warms to Jack’s insistence that she share her gift with the world. It’s a staggeringly good performance from Gaga in every department. She is equally at ease sparring with co-stars Anthony Ramos (her best friend Ramon) and Andrew Dice Clay (her Sinatra-loving father) as she is carrying the heavier emotional baggage that the later chapters of the film bring, and it’s incredible to think that so natural a performance could come out of an actress making her feature film debut.
Though Gaga’s acting may be revelatory, her profoundly powerful voice has been renowned for years. Moments when she utilises both in perfect harmony are a privilege to behold. Always Remember Us This Way and I’ll Never Love Again, both penned by Gaga, are melodically, lyrically and vocally songs that rank right at the very top of her discography. However, the epicentre the film is the scene in which Ally reluctantly joins Jack on stage to sing Shallow, the song she penned and performed for him the night before. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene in which she initially holds herself back in the wings, pinned down by her fears and insecurities, before finally marching centre-stage and into the spotlight. She looks surprised as, almost involuntarily, note after dazzling note pours out of her, much to the rapturous acclaim of the crowd in front of her. It’s electrifying, and a reminder of how moving film can be when done right.
Although Bradley Cooper has worked with many of the industry’s directing heavyweights, A Star is Born marks his first foray into the world of directing. There are perhaps slight pacing issues and an overuse of straight-to-camera shots, but it is nevertheless a remarkably assured first offering, with loving references to the versions of the film that preceded his own.
He succeeds in capturing the energy and dynamism of live performances, and there is some seriously gorgeous cinematography employed throughout. His use of framing, both as a foreshadowing and bookending device, is also particularly effective. So strong a debut is this that it’s hard to imagine quite how he’ll top it with his next feature, whenever that may be, but it is clear that he has a very bright future behind the camera ahead of him.
Though it is still early days, A Star is Born is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz. Best Original Song seems a lock, whilst nods for acting, directing and even Best Picture may yet be on the cards. Critics have argued that such accolades would not be merited given the number of times the film has been remade. However, this is perhaps best addressed by the film itself. Towards the end, Jack’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) remarks that all music is made up of the same twelve notes that can be found in any octave. He adds that, “All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.” It’s an observation that also rings particularly true of A Star is Born. Whilst it’s a story that may have been told before, never has it been told better.