Review: A Star is Born

by Andrew Parker

Actor Bradley Cooper’s feature directorial debut A Star is Born, a retelling of the well worn tale about a relationship between a washed-up performer and an up-and-coming talent, is an assured, electrifying, and expertly crafted motion picture that lives up to nearly every ounce of hype it has received recently. Paired alongside a revelatory performance from relative acting novice Lady Gaga as his co-lead, Cooper not only delivers the best performance of his career to date, but also mounts one of the best directed, paced, and thoughtfully crafted films of the year. It’s probably no surprise that Cooper would turn out to be a fine director, but A Star is Born is an impressive and monumental achievement no matter how many films the person at the helm has under their belt.

Pop-country rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) still draws huge crowds and commands legions of adoring fans, but the expiration date for his time at the top of the music industry is rapidly approaching. His hearing is in continued decline from decades spent on stage. His working relationship with his considerably older brother and tour manager (Sam Elliott) has reached what might be a final breaking point. He’s constantly piss drunk and pilled out to get through his long, demanding days. One night while looking for a local watering hole to continue his latest bender after a concert, he stumbles into a drag club where one of the performers captivates his eyes and ears instantly. Maine goes backstage to meet Ally (Lady Gaga), a catering worker who performs at the club because she’s too shy and introverted to play her music in any other venues. Immediately taken, Jackson spends the night hanging out and talking with Ally, and by the end of it he’s all but demanding that she follow him on tour. She initially hesitates, but eventually finds the courage to follow Jackson on stage and on the road, becoming an overnight sensation in the process and providing the aging rock star with the creative kick in the pants his career desperately needed. The two begin a whirlwind romantic relationship that’s constantly endangered by Ally’s burgeoning super-stardom, Jackson’s increasing irrelevance, and his constantly spiking and abating addiction issues.

Opening in bombastic fashion with a concert sequence that’s meant to act as a calling card for everything to follow, A Star is Born grips from the opening frames. Unlike previous takes on the same material, Cooper’s version of A Star is Born openly courts crowd pleasing status while making a key number of artistic and dramatic promises. It only takes seconds into the film for the audience to realize that they’re in good hands with Cooper and to become captivated by the characters and their increasingly toxic, self-destructive situations. Many modern filmmakers don’t approach such potentially melodramatic material with an eye and ear towards delivering something closer to a spectacle, but Cooper (who also co-wrote, produces, and performs his own music) finds a balance between old school Hollywood excess and restrained humanity; a tone that’s wholly befitting of the main characters. It’s a delicate, ambitious, and highly difficult equilibrium to achieve, especially for a first time director working on such a scale, but Cooper seems to have learned from the best on every motion picture that he’s worked on (especially Clint Eastwood, who was originally tapped to direct, and to whom this work is deeply indebted to on visual and spiritual levels).

A Star is Born is the type of motion picture that works as well as it does because there’s always an underlying sense that Cooper and Gaga understand the tics, neuroses, and emotional swings of their characters intimately. There’s always the belief that Cooper and Gaga have either known or been people exactly like their on screen avatars. There’s an ease and effortless nature to their chemistry together as on screen professional peers and romantic counterparts, but it’s the character’s moments away from one another that provide A Star is Born with its most impressionable and moving moments. Cooper doesn’t stress how great Jackson and Ally are together because he sets up their obvious attraction and mutually beneficial creative partnership expertly from the start, preferring to make A Star is Born into a more assured and detail oriented tale of what such people will do when left to their own devices, especially in the film’s second half where Ally wrestles with the guilt of leaving Jackson behind in his greatest time of need, and a heart-breaking sequence where Ally’s new manager and handler (Rafi Gavron, giving a great supporting performance in a film chock full of highly qualified character roles) makes it known to the aging singer-songwriter that he needs to step away from his love if he wants her to have a thriving career.

To say that the performances given by Gaga and Cooper are the dictionary definition of “lived in” would be selling them both short. These are expert level performances bolstered by strong material and even stronger direction, which garners extra praise when one considers that Gaga has done little acting before and Cooper has to steer the entire elaborate ship while delivering his turn. Cooper and Gaga are perfect together, but in their moments apart, A Star is Born gives them plenty of other colourful characters, personalities, and performers to work alongside. Cooper shows equally exceptional chemistry alongside Elliott’s increasingly consternated and frustrated older brother, giving the veteran actor one of his career best roles in the process. Gaga finds herself paired nicely opposite Gavron’s slick, douchy, but not altogether wrongheaded manager and Andrew Dice Clay (who has a proven track record of quietly stealing any film he’s in when tasked with a dramatic or lightly comedic character role) as Ally’s blue collar father.

None of these character’s are cut-and-dry. No one is an altogether good or bad person, meaning the actors are free to imbue every character with realistic faults and flaws instead of easily digestible clichés. Jackson, quite refreshingly, isn’t a cad with a wandering eye or abusive tendencies outside of his obvious co-dependency issues. He is, however, a trainwreck alcoholic who never treats his depression seriously enough to stay sober. Jackson’s manager is simultaneously jealous of his big brother’s success, annoyed by how the singer ripped off a gimmick that could have been his, and concerned for the well being of an obstinate, entitled family member. Ally enjoys the success that her new career affords her, but has blinders on to the actual quality of the hyper-sexualized and disposable pop-ditties that her record label forces her into performing. There are things that all the characters in A Star is Born could be doing better in their lives, and Cooper understands that the real dramatic tension for the audience will be found in watching and hoping that these flawed human beings find the blisses, closures, and comforts that they’ve been searching for.

A Star is Born is the type of film that demands to be seen on the big screen or not at all. Every inch of every frame courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Darren Aronofsky’s most frequent collaborator, who also shot this week’s other major release, Venom) comes bathed in perfect lighting and delivered with remarkably clarity, with Cooper making good use of the lenser’s trademark close-ups. The sound design has been calibrated to feel like being at a rock concert during the film’s show-stopping and perfectly rousing musical numbers. Few people can make such often internalized human drama into high profile spectacle, but Cooper has found a way to do just that with A Star is Born. It demands to be seen in the largest and loudest auditorium possible, and it’s one of the few films that could have its impact dampened by seeing it under less optimized conditions. While Cooper has put his career on the line making such a film, all of his collaborators behind the camera are in perfect step with their director’s vision and passion.

If there’s anything negative to say about this latest version of A Star is Born, it’s that Cooper’s take on the material is more about the aging male lead’s problems than those of his female lover and protégée. Once it becomes apparent where Cooper wants to take his material, that inequality starts to make sense, but it also feels like A Star is Born might be an inappropriate title in spite of its status as a remake. But given the overall strength, conviction, and craft that Cooper has put into his first feature, that becomes a minor quibble in a hurry, especially when one considers that Gaga still has more than enough to work with and make an indelible impression in her first leading cinematic role.

If we’re measuring A Star is Born with the same parameters used by many to predict Oscar buzz and audience reactions that are applied to other prestigious projects, Cooper’s film emerges as one of the best efforts from a major studio in quite some time. It’s as close as such big budget tearjerkers get to being flawless.

A Star is Born opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, October 5, 2018.

Check out the trailer for A Star is Born:

This film was screened as part of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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