Fueled by strong performances and Cooper’s precise direction, A Star is Born is a moving (and tear-jerking) love story by way of showbiz melodrama.
Bradley Cooper steps behind the camera for the first time with A Star is Born, the third remake of the 1937 film, which was previously remade in 1954 and then again in 1976. Each version has put a fresh spin on the same basic plot by emphasizing different elements (namely, the relationship drama or the musical numbers), while at the same time updating the film’s outlook on the music industry for the times and casting a different set of big-name stars. While every cinephile no doubt has their personal favorite iteration, many already seem to agree that Cooper’s take is one of the best (if not the best) interpretations yet – and for good reason. Fueled by strong performances and Cooper’s precise direction, A Star is Born is a moving (and tear-jerking) love story by way of showbiz melodrama.
Cooper headlines A Star is Born as Jackson “Jack” Maine, a well-established and successful country singer-songwriter who’s (in)famous for his heavy drinking and leading the wild celebrity lifestyle. One evening, following a show, Jack stops at a random nightclub in search of a drink, unaware that it’s a gay bar in the middle of a drag queen show. Jack is further surprised when he sees a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga) performing as part of the show and clearly wowing the crowd with her spectacular singing. Upon impressing Ally with his own musical talents after the show, Jack convinces her to have a drink with him and the pair are quick to form a connection – as both musicians and potential lovers.
Assuming she will never see him again after their night together, Ally is shocked when Jack instead makes good on his promise to invite her to his next concert performance. With some prodding from her bestie Ramon (Anthony Ramos), Ally accepts Jack’s invitation, only to show up and learn that he’s arranged for her to perform one of her own songs with him on stage – which she does, to rapturous applause from the attending crowd. Before she knows it, Ally is skyrocketing to music superstardom, even as her relationship with Jack blooms into a full-blown love affair and much more. However, just as everything starts going well for Ally, Jack finds that the wear and tear of his lifestyle is finally catching up to him and struggles to comes to terms with his personal demons… and the realization that his own time in the spotlight might be over soon.
Written by Cooper, Will Fetters (The Lucky One) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), A Star is Born succeeds in telling its recycled story about a troubled older musician romancing a younger up and comer, without changing the bare-bones structure of the plot. The film doesn’t necessarily shy away from the old-fashioned melodrama at the heart of its premise so much as it grounds it in human relationships that ring true, be it the whirlwind romance between Jack and Ally or the dynamics between the movie’s protagonists and the people around them (friends, family, employees). It helps that A Star is Born is refreshingly honest in the way it shows its characters wrestling with their toxic emotions and struggling to process traumatic experiences. Cooper’s remake thus avoids being regressive in its portrayal of its leads’ artistic impulses and instead suggests that people like Jack and Ally are creative in spite of their destructive tendencies, not because of them.
Jack and Ally’s relationship itself (naturally) serves as the emotional core of A Star is Born and benefits in no small amount from the easy-going chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. Cooper in particular delivers one of his most emotionally rich performances yet as Jack, a character who could have easily come off as creepy and self-entitled but is charismatic and sympathetic in Cooper’s hands – making it all the easier to believe that people would flock to him, despite his self-destructive behavior. Gaga holds her own against Cooper for the large part, but neither the Ally character nor Gaga’s performance are as fully developed or nuanced as her costar’s here. Nevertheless, the romantic sparks that fly between Cooper and Gaga onscreen feel natural and unforced, thus making it all the easier for audiences to become emotionally invested in their love story (even if you know – or suspect – its ultimate trajectory going in). Cooper the director also draws strong performances from his ensemble cast here, with the standouts including Sam Elliott in a stirring (and sometimes even heart-breaking) turn as Jack’s put-upon manager Bobby and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo, a character who manages to be funny and touching in equal measure.
Like many (most?) actors-turned directors, Cooper takes a performance-driven storytelling approach in his first time behind the camera. At the same time, he’s clearly knowledgable about the technical side of the filmmaking process and brings a personal creative touch to the proceedings on A Star is Born. The film’s concert musical numbers are especially impressive, as Cooper and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Darren Aronofsky’s frequent collaborator) photograph the live shows in ways that are both visually striking and truly unique in their composition. A Star is Born is further effective in creating a stylishly impressionist portrait of its characters’ experiences and makes heavy use of closeups, natural lighting and careful sound design, in order to keep their story feeling intimate throughout. The film’s structure is similarly unconventional, as Cooper and his editor Jay Cassidy (who previously worked together on Cooper’s collaborations with David O. Russell) frequently use jump cuts or equally dramatic transitions to keep the plot flowing along at a steady pace. A Star is Born‘s editing might be a bit divisive for that same reason, but it arguably serves to trim any unnecessary material from the narrative.
The main issue that prevents A Star is Born from being a full-blown grand slam is that it works better as a romantic drama than a cautionary tale about the fleeting cycle of fame and success in show business. Cooper’s remake is at its strongest during its first and third acts, when the focus is more squarely on Jack and Ally’s blossoming relationship and (subsequently) Jack’s downward spiral. However, A Star is Born starts to get more hand-wavy during its second act, which is when it shifts its attention to juxtaposing Ally’s fast rise to superstardom with Jack’s fading presence in the spotlight. The film simply doesn’t have much to say about the fickle nature of showbiz fame that hasn’t been articulated better in movies past and is disappointingly shallow in its perspective on pop music and what the concept of “selling out” even means. In other words: A Star is Born is an excellent romantic drama that’s held back by the fact that it eventually has to be, well, A Star is Born remake.
Overall, though, A Star is Born is a great start to Cooper’s directing career and generally lives up to the early hype that it’s generated during its tour of the film festival circuit, ahead of its theatrical release. In addition to the impressive acting and craftsmanship, A Star is Born is further bolstered by its memorable original tunes and the singing by Cooper (who does quite well here, despite his lack of a professional singing background) and – obviously – Gaga. The musical concert numbers alone would make the film worth seeing in a theater for the enhanced audio, but it’s the other elements that elevate A Star is Born into one of the must-see films of Fall 2018 for movie buffs. Here’s to hoping Cooper and Gaga’s own time in the limelight is far from over, for related reasons.
A Star is Born starts playing in U.S. theaters nationwide on Thursday evening, October 4. It is 136 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse.
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