Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Length: 135 minutes
A third remake of a film that has also been redone and parodied in countless other works shouldn’t be the type of film event that attracts as much hype as “A Star Is Born” has over the past year. That it earns and exceeds every bit of hype is stunning. This is a great film, one of the year’s best, and the best film musical in decades.
“A Star Is Born” is a musical in the sense that “Crazy Heart” or “Inside Llewyn Davis” are musicals. The performances come from musicians at concerts, recording in the studio or composing at home. The closest these characters come to abruptly breaking into song at some random place is when Ally, played by Lady Gaga, improvises some lines to the destined-for- Oscar “Shallow” in a grocery store parking lot. This is a musical for people, including myself, who have a hard time suspending disbelief enough to enjoy most traditional musicals, but those who enjoy traditional musicals will probably like it too.
If you’ve seen any of the previous three versions of “A Star Is Born (and probably even if you haven’t), the story will be very familiar. The film opens with Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performing a sold-out concert. It’s an epic first sequence that shows Cooper in full command in front of and behind the camera. As with most other musical performances for the remaining two hours, the perspective is entirely that of the people on stage. There are almost no cuts to audience reactions to any of these performances. That isn’t the focus. We hear the crowds. We can just barely spot some of the raised hands in the background. It’s musicians that own every shot of every song. It’s refreshing.
After the concert, Jackson polishes off a bottle of booze in the back of his limo and then tells the driver, with an urgency of an injured person looking for a hospital, to pull off at a bar. It happens to be a drag bar. In it, Jackson meets Ally, who used to waitress at the bar and is frequently asked to come back and perform for her friends. She is a singer/songwriter who has never been able to break into the industry because everyone thinks her nose is strange. Jackson watches as Ally performs “ La Vie En Rose” and then they spend the night together. They do not have sex. Instead, they get into a bar fight, discuss careers and begin writing music together.
These scenes are arguably the best the film has to offer. That is in no way meant as criticism of its second half. It’s just that discovering the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is delightful. How good is it, you may ask? Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could never hope to touch it. We’re talking Kate and Leo in “Titanic” levels, but even better since there is little to no cringe-worthy dialogue. I expected Cooper to be great. He is no stranger to characters battling some very formidable personal demons, which he did in Oscar nominated roles in “Silver Linings Playbook” and, to a lesser extent, “American Sniper.” However, this might be Cooper’s most heartbreaking performance and also his most gritty.
Lady Gaga is a revelation. That may be pedestrian writing, but it really is the best way to define this performance. It’s shocking she hasn’t been in a musical film earlier than this, but she very likely has a future in movies that have nothing to do with songwriting, and that future is well-earned. Elaborating on it too much would result in spoilers, and not so much of the plot detail variety detail but those of the character trait sort. I’ll just say that she and Cooper will likely receive multiple Oscar nominations this year, and both deserve to appear in the acting categories.
The music is excellent. “Shallow” is of course the first single from the soundtrack and the one that has received the most attention so far, but there are several other great tunes in the first half of the film. The second half, when Ally and Jackson’s careers split into different trajectories, provides some songs that are intentionally weak. It’s kind of like in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” when Llewyn has to settle for appearing in the novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy” to make some money. To be successful with labels like Interscope, Ally, has to drop the stripped down and more folksy melodies she and Jackson used to write in order to crank out mediocre chart toppers. Now, since Lady Gaga is still singing and performing them, they are really good as far as mainstream chart toppers are concerned these days. The film says a lot about the music industry, and a lot of it isn’t complimentary. It does this far more successfully than “La La Land” did. It’s nice that the film allows viewers ears to do the critiquing and comparing on their own, rather than being lectured about good music by a Damien Chazelle screenplay for two hours. It’s okay, Chazelle has an opportunity at winning me back next weekend with “First Man”
The last 30 minutes of the film are quite a gut punch. I could tell a lot of the audience in the packed theater where we saw this film were not familiar with how the previous versions ended and were caught off guard by the conclusion.
I haven’t even talked about Sam Elliot yet. How did I forget to do that? Elliot plays Bobby, Jackson’s older brother and manager. Though largely absent from the trailers, Bobby’s influence looms large over every side of Jackson. This is not the type of role I’m used to seeing Elliot in, and that’s what I loved about his presence here. Though he’s probably only on screen for a couple minutes, he leaves quite an impression.
There’s a lot more I could say, and I probably will later in the year when we list the year’s best. I know there are a lot of movies still to come before 2019, but it’s hard to imagine this one won’t at least be part of the conversation.
Finally, I am someone who generally enjoys watching movies at home just as much as going to the theater (sometimes more). I’ve made many comments about rude audience members, having to sit through so may trailers and so on, but this movie needs to be experienced at least once in a theater. Like last year’s “Dunkirk,” which was an entirely different type of film, this one has to be experienced in a dark, crowded auditorium at least once. I was heartened to see so many people doing just that last night, and I hope it keeps up for weeks, if not months, to come.
I have never seen a film that was so deserving of the hype it received before it was released. When I saw the traction this film was getting before it’s release, it worried me. Usually that means there will be some aspect of the film that won’t sit well with me. I am very hard to please. Just ask my husband. That was not the case with this film though. Considering the natural pessimist that I am (I mean look at the curmudgeon I married), this will probably be the most positive review you will ever read from me. This film swept me off my feet in ways that I was not expecting. I was really expecting that I would just magically wake up the next morning realizing there was something I did not like about this film, but that did not happen.
Let’s start with Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. I have never seen a film about music in which I felt so much a part of every performance. The way in which this film was shot made it feel like you were experiencing each musical performance first hand. It allowed you to become immersed in the music and really experience it from the artists perspective. Music is so important to both Jackson Maine (Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga) as characters. These musical performances and the way they were shot really allowed you to connect with both characters on a deeper level. It was also awesome that there were not a ton of audience reaction shots during these musical performances. It really allowed you to experience the emotions of both artists rather than making you feel like a spectator.
When I first saw the casting for this film I had two initial reactions. First, I was so stoked that Lady Gaga was involved. And then, I became skeptical because that is just who I am as a person. The chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga was phenomenal. This film would not have been the same with different casting choices. Throughout the film, their characters had a genuine connection. Honestly, at times, I forgot I was watching a movie because, as a viewer, you get so wrapped up in the natural way they interact with each other on screen. The performances from both Cooper and Lady Gaga were the best I have seen yet this year. Jackson Maine is an addict and the performance by Cooper in the scenes when he was inebriated both on and off the stage were so realistic. The delineation between scenes where he was on something versus was he was sober was unreal. Ally spends most of the film dealing with his sobriety issues. She deals with the emotions that so many other people who love addicts have to deal with. Her performance was so raw and real.
As you can imagine, music plays a huge role in this film. Both main characters are musicians and it becomes a central part of their relationship in both amazing and very unhealthy ways. With that being said, the songs written by Cooper and Lady Gaga were damn near perfect. I am a sucker for a Lady Gaga piano ballad and there were so many of them. The tone of these songs was very Joanne-esque. I found myself feeling that these songs were familiar while also feeling like I was listening to something new at the same time. We also get to see a revival of the old Lady Gaga at a certain point which was also pretty awesome.
Before seeing this reiteration of A Star is Born, I have to admit I have not seen any of the others. So, I can not speak to the authenticity of the story compared to other versions. However, I can say that the screen play was much better written than I was expecting. There was not a single cringe-worthy line that comes to mind. The dialogue between Jackson and Ally was unique to their relationship in a way that I haven’t seen a screenplay do in a long time. The dialogue with peripheral characters was also memorable, and in the end, always served a purpose. There was a nice balance in the content of the story as well. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is, that in the end, you realize this was a very dark story. The first half of the film was unexpectedly funny though, which helped to balance it all out a bit. While the story does turn dark, I will say there was also nice pacing. There was never a sudden turn that happened out of nowhere and nothing that you questioned the reality of as a viewer.
I really cannot say enough great things about this film. I feel like I could keep writing positive things about this film the longer I think about it. As you can see, I didn’t write anything negative about it. And, honestly, that is because I really can’t think of anything without getting supper nit-picky. This film is more than deserving of all of the hype it has received. This is a beautifully told story about two flawed characters who find each other in the most unexpected way. Honestly, I just can’t wait to live in the same world as Oscar winner Lady Gaga.