MOVIE REVIEW: A Star is Born




Many movies about celebrity or the American Dream of stardom often widen their gaze and adjust their perspective to see their fame-seeking subjects from afar.  Coverage shots will show crowd reaction and fan involvement. Additional layers track the machine of media coverage. These elements are often used as points of view to try and show the size of impact, popularity, and overall scope of the maddening attention being showered and received.  Zero of that prototypical tendency is used by Bradley Cooper in his remake of A Star is Born.  Starring Lady Gaga as the discovered muse of Cooper’s troubadour rocker, the film remains locked on the duo at a personal level.  Their magnetic celestial brightness is all the heat necessary before a chord is ever plucked or a microphone ever captures a lyric.

And then the guitars, piano keys, and voices move and pour their sounds into speakers that meet our ears.  Cooper simmers with swagger before Gaga’s vocal force boils the cauldron over, taking everything to another level.  Songs emerge and what was cauterized by charged passion is now frozen in alluring amazement of the talent on display.  With this fourth version of A Star is Born, you will find yourself captivated watching the expressive performances, both sung and unsung, no matter if it is for an audience of thousands or just merely one.

LESSON #1: EYES ALWAYS MESMERIZE-- The intensity of A Star is Born begins with it fixation on eyes being equal to voices.  Interrogative requests like “will you spend the night” become more challenging to deny when asked with direct eye contact.  Imperative sentences like “watch this” punch harder when delivered face-to-face. Songs melt hearts faster when the singer looks at you while they do it.  When Cooper’s icy blues meet Gaga’s lucious browns for the first time while she serenades “La Vie En Rose” at a drag show he stumbled into looking for a drink, the optical explosion starts whole shebang.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an Arizona-born country star with an adoring-but-shrinking following.  Years fueled by alcohol and pills have worn down his legendary stature and increased his tinnitus, much to the disappointment and caretaking fear of his managing older brother Bobby, played by screen treasure Sam Elliott.  Jackson’s discovery of Lady Gaga’s Ally at that drag show by happenstance inspires instant connection and creativity. Romancing her to join him on stage to share a song together, Jackson plucks Ally away from dead-end work and living under her father’s (a damn nice part for Andrew Dice Clay) roof of dreamer dismay to join him on his tour.

LESSON #2: THE BENEFITS AND DANGERS OF MIXING LOVE AND STARDOM-- Ally’s grounding company and rising stage energy begin to revitalize his act and his inner spirits.  Jackson’s mentorship and their romance add to Ally’s rapid rise into her own branded pop image, veering her away from the songwriting heart that got her started.  Sure enough, her Hollywood heights and his sobriety lows dangle and tangle the duo in precariously dramatic fashion.

Every inch of this raucous and raw roller coaster cautionary tale feels personal.  Similar to his striking work in mother! last year, cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses curling close-ups that tightly orbit their subjects.  Any view is their view, not a third person one from a nameless observer or audience proxy. Ancillary characters, like Elliott, Clay, Refi Gavron’s opportunistic music producer, or visiting old friends like David Chappelle’s Noodles or Anthony Ramos’ Ramon, remain extramural until they are directly conversing with our leads in powerful scenes.  Their inclusion is earned or purposeful instead of mere coverage. There's a sensational level of intimacy in that closeness.

Cooper and Gaga encapsulate that intimacy with remarkable chemistry and multiple layers of fierce, honest romance for A Star is Born.  Strip the music away and their relationship at the core of the movie still has desirable draw for days.  Few music-centered films can maintain such, where the musical component must compensate for underdevelopment elsewhere.  Luckily, that chiseled narrative strength means the songs stand as extra cinematic fireworks.

The tracks here are dynamic new originals written by Cooper and Gaga themselves collaborating with country artists Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsay, among others.  They were written with character evolution in mind. Beginning with the acoustic “Maybe It’s Time” as the veteran’s signature standard and peaking with the powerhouse single “Shallow” that will be your likely Best Original Song Oscar winner this coming February, the song creations mightily succeed on that front and climax with a perfect stunner in “I’ll Never Love Again.”  Each rhythmic jam channels their shared fun and the ballads seize their sensuality.

Already a worldwide star in one artistic medium, Lady Gaga conquers another as a legitimate leading lady acting with indomitable zeal.  Unlike many other singers who have attempted such a transition, she never wavers to the gravity of the moment. She can still sear the screen when the safety blanket of the microphone is taken away.  Had she failed away from her musical talent, the film collapses. Instead, it swells. If this doesn’t raise her stratospheric popularity and respect higher, nothing will.

Game for any challenge he accepts including this enormous full-bodied performance within the risks of this, his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper is showing us that he can do just about anything targeted by his laser focus.  Learning to slay at guitar and conquering 18 months of vocal training, Cooper lowers and twangs his voice and presence to dazzle us with his complete commitment to the character and work involved.  As a first feature, this is quite an accomplishment, especially in orchestrating all of the directing and storytelling choices that kept this tight on the partners and away from the unnecessary noise.  A Star is Born stands as a passion project of passion we didn’t know he had.  May he always improve and surprise us like this.

LESSON #3: MESSAGE BEATS TALENT-- In the same way that Bradley Cooper came into this with no singing and instrumental experience, A Star is Born goes out of its way to preach this inequality.  What one is expressing for others to absorb will always be greater than the talent giving it.  Jackson mentors Ally to say that “talent comes from everywhere” and extols and encourages that “having something to say that people want to hear” is the supreme difference.  Telling people what you have to say has to be genuine and requires digging deep into one’s soul and sharing truths. Anything less crumbles the message and this storyline.