Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenplay: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott
Runtime: 135 Minutes
There’s little need for disclosure when discussing why the pervasive narrative of A Star Is Born keeps coming back every few decades in a new form, with a new approach to each era of it’s setting. The by now timeless story of a tragic romance between an ageing star of stage or screen (depending on the adaptation) and the young partner come protégé who comes to surpass them isn’t just a depiction of the disparity between eras and the waves of success and change in the entertainment industries, but the stark contrast between someone who became an artist to create and submitted to being famous and the young talent who might outstrip them at the cost of losing them.
This 2018 take on the story takes much of its inspiration from the 1976 rock musical of the same name which was produced as a vanity project to reshape Barbra Streisand’s image, trading the silver screen for the 70s music scene.
Much like that version, too, this feels like it was tailor-made by director, star and co-writer Bradley Cooper as a means of launching his own award bid for Oscar season, with an equally eye-catching display in casting music star Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) as his counterpart.
Thankfully, and against the many odds that may have been stacked against it, Cooper’s bid to retell the story under his own authorship is a reverberating success on many levels.
Besides the winning gambit of taking the music scene to its more contemporary backdrop, with Cooper’s established singer-songwriter Jackson Maine a perfectly modelled vision of a rugged, ageing hard drinking Rockstar, the contrast it forms with Gaga’s Ally as the modern vision of a more mainstream pop star works. Their chemistry is palpable, raw and genuinely touching to watch as they playfully muck on and other about in the earlier stages of the film, which makes their collisions later on hurt all the more.
The meta-commentary as intended might have been that Cooper wanted the audience to recognize Gaga as a star in the same way that his character does, but Gaga has proved before that she can hold her own. Rather, the reflection becomes one on Gaga’s own rise to prominence after her discovering playing in piano bars, her assentation to the height of pop culture success and carefully constructed pretence before coming back down to earth in her later work.
Gaga is simply fantastic to watch perform, but then again, we always knew that she would be. Her ability to hold attention in the quieter moments resonates as strongly when she isn’t dominating in big showy musical numbers (many of which are a wonderful collaborative effort from both stars and Lukas Nelson). Cooper’s camera is in love with her, but in the edit never chooses to objectify her and only ever inflecting heavy artifice when looking her directly in the face.
The revelation here lies with Cooper, who is extraordinarily compelling and convincing in the leading role. Transforming from a clean-cut charismatic handsome lead into a puffy, red-faced, croaky-voiced titan who won’t step down from his podium no matter how much it is damaging his mental and physical wellbeing. He balances the complex spectrum of his emotions well like a wounded old dog, and his confrontations with an insidiously well cast Sam Elliott as his older brother and manager are amongst the best in the film.
What’s stronger still, and the real winning element to this rendition, is that Cooper turns out to be a born filmmaker. His framing of the story is one that is far more intimately involved with its characters and their passion than the escalating world around them, so much so that it barely registers as we see their transformations physically and through their changing interactions together.
All of which is tied down with a beautifully pieced together edit and sound design, naturalistic eye-level photography that make the stadium scenes feel large and encapsulating, and a first act that flows so well and climaxes so hard and powerfully that it stands as one of the best stretches of narrative cinema to be seen this year.
That being said, it can’t then help but be noticed that there is a noticeable decline following its triumphant set-piece sequence in which Ally first takes to the stage. It falls down the more traditional root of the same story as before, hitting the same beats to a different rhythm while playing up the exhaustive mental drain of its self-destructive leading figure.
As such, Gaga’s Ally falls somewhat to the wayside will less in the way of backstory or evolution without a solid answer as to what the next stage for her might be, even if that may be by design left intentionally ambiguous. There’s also a walking cliché of a slimy British music producer in Rafi Gavron, a thankless contribution from Dave Chappelle as Maine’s previous unmentioned best friend, and some of Ally’s later pop tracks feeling a little too parodic in how generic they sound.
This 2018 rendering of the classic story might not be the best of its breed, but it’s stronger than it has most right to be as an early award season contender. Gaga is dazzling, but the real star is Cooper taking to the stage as a very talented filmmaker, and finally finding a performance that feels chiselled to suit an ideal persona, without such odious temperament.