A sublime, staggering masterstroke.
Bradley Cooper’s first stride into the world of directing is a peculiar choice from the outset: a remake, of a remake, of a remake. The tried, tested and availed formula clearly strikes a chord with audiences, but that shouldn’t be a factor to belittle this stunning achievement. Cooper’s rendition of A Star Is Born is a remarkably powerful piece of work, conjuring up an onscreen pair that’ll be remembered for years to come, some killer music and a thematically shattering tale of fame that takes the film to another level beyond a singsong – we’re certainly far from the shallow now, we’re right in at the deep end.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a tinnitus suffering country music superstar, is slowly losing control of his life. He’s ignoring medical advice, he’s addicted to prescription drugs, and most and worst of all, he’s an alcoholic. His much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) runs errands for him as they travel the country performing gigs, pushing him to look after himself but constantly failing. One fateful evening after a typically lively concert, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar – BYOB (bring your own boobs) is the rule. As he takes a pew and enjoys a scarily hearty measure of gin, Ally (Lady Gaga) appears on stage. He’s utterly besotted by her performance of ‘La Vie En Rose’, and charms his way to striking up a conversation with her, sparking a chain of events that’ll bring about love, stardom, and devastation in equal measure.
Cooper, starring and directing, opens the film with a pulsating, rollicking gig sequence, tracking the camera on his back as he picks up his guitar and begins to rock out to the deafening noise of his adoring crowd. Just before he goes to play, he takes a couple of pills to see him through – of course the audience can’t see that, they’re just there to see their favourite star. Straight away we get to hear Jackson’s voice, full of soulful chords accompanied by some awesomely loud music and cementing Cooper’s talents, assuring you, the viewer, that he isn’t messing around. The audience is deafening, the music is deafening, they all cancel each other out – Cooper is purposely deaf to the calling of his own problems, his fans are too busy swooning adoration to really hear what he has to say, a mantra Jackson lives by.
We then switch to Ally in an echo-ridden bathroom cubicle, screaming in frustration at her boyfriend before strolling away poetically, and as the red titles fade in over the scene, the classiness washes over you – just like how Chazelle opened La La Land in vintage style, Cooper does too.
His direction here is absolutely remarkable for a debut feature. He knows when to spend time with a moment and drain it for all its emotional worth, and also when to move on. He’s also a co-writer alongside Eric Roth and Will Fetters, so the fact he’s pulled this off in so many ways is nothing short of extraordinary. It isn’t long before the inevitable couple meet, and Cooper illuminates the spark with keenly envisioned symbolism, employing different colours for different feelings on each of their faces. What is fantastically well done, is their personalities and opinions are clearly established – Jackson loves his job, appeases his fans regularly who, funnily, always call him by his full name. Ally is immensely talented, but bogged down by a widespread lack of belief and hurtful comments about her appearance. The writing for the pair’s initial tango is so delicate, providing many laughs but also managing to be cutesy without crossing that dangerous line (there are a very small handful of moments that are a little corny). It isn’t exactly a spoiler to say what the film is really about; Jackson is so impressed by Ally’s singing and songwriting abilities, and wants to see her take a chance. Their relationship moves at a breakneck speed, but in the heat of the drunken air and the neon light, why shouldn’t they be allowed to fall for each other?
And that’s the thing – Cooper’s A Star Is Born is very much a product of its time. With the omniscience of the internet and the capacity for everything to be filmed on a phone, a chance encounter in this day and age can equal fame, and the film smartly never plays down its reality in favour of distasteful theatrics. There are some damning musings on present-day stardom and the culture that surrounds it, as well as the treatment of mental health issues today. So as much as you’re drawn to the flick to hear Gaga singing her heart out, there’s a thick-skinned, dramatic heft that carries a heavy punch. For much of the running time, Cooper spends time up close with the characters, reading their facial expressions for the slightest ticks, the most minor of changes, almost letting you get to know them as the minutes fly by. You’ll cherish every second of profound character development as much as the singing.
Then again, the singing is mesmerising. The first performance of the soon-to-be-hit song, ‘Shallow’, is a perfect experience. When Ally grabs hold of the microphone with two hands and blasts out that time-stopping note, the goosebumps will wash over you like a tidal wave of kaleidoscopic emotion. Every sense in your body feels awake, feels alive, like you’re glowing with untamable joy. Overall, Gaga’s performance is fantastic, compelling whether she’s on stage or off, managing to bring an unforeseen realism despite her worldwide popstar origins, and proving her competency as a terrific actress further. But Cooper is magnificent. Very brave to put yourself out there alongside an artist as talented as Gaga, but he holds his own and will likely melt hearts with his country tones. But what’s most impressive is how he restrains Jackson’s inner struggle so heart-breakingly throughout, confiding and fighting with his brother (a turn from Elliot that oozes gravitas), while finding sanctuary in the arms of his wife in the face of his affliction – he’s not portrayed as an abusive, reckless rockstar, he’s just a man who’s led himself astray and can’t find his way back home.
The camera does have a tendency to keep moving all the time, whether it’s embodying the energetic spirit of a gig, or gently moving around the facial expressions of our lead couple. But it’s never so abrupt or grating it feels like a problem, rather, it just feels passionately fizzing with life. Some of the cinematography here is truly great, with Matthew Libatique’s evocative work shining in the grand stage scenes and hurting in moments of anguish – there are shots that’ll stay with you for a long time. The first half of the movie may hit some beats you’ll likely expect, but the second half will knock you for six, diving deep into the aftermath of lovesick decisions, all before reaching a devastating conclusion.