Review: Bradley Cooper's 'A Star is Born' is Soulful Artistic Expression
by Adam Frazier
October 5, 2018
Co-written and directed by actor Bradley Cooper, 2018's A Star is Born is the third remake of William A. Wellman's 1937 film, which earned seven Academy Award nominations at the time. George Cukor's 1954 adaptation, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, was nominated for six. And the 1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, earned four. Between the three films, only two Oscars were won: Best Writing (Original Story) in 1938 and Best Original Song in 1977. As producer, director, screenwriter, and star, Cooper is following in Streisand’s footsteps and, if history is any indication, his directorial debut will earn several award nominations, and deservedly so. Not only is Cooper's A Star is Born the premiere of a filmmaker with a unique voice but it solidifies Lady Gaga as the preeminent entertainer of the day.
In this new take on a timeless love story, Cooper (of Silver Linings Playbook and Guardians of the Galaxy) plays blues-rock megastar Jackson Maine, who one night discovers a struggling but immensely talented and refreshingly authentic artist Ally (Gaga) and falls in love with her on sight. Ally has given up on her dreams of becoming a successful singer — she doesn’t think she’s pretty enough or that her voice matters — but Jack sees her natural talent and coaxes her out of obscurity and into the spotlight. When the film opens, we see Jack as he’s about to go on stage, but not without first swallowing a handful of pills and washing them down with a swig from the bottle. But when he hits the stage and performs "Black Eyes" with his band (played by Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson, and Promise of the Real), Jack's talent is undeniable: he's a star.
The seasoned rocker has been in the music business for a long time — he's seen it all — and all the attention and celebrity is suffocating him. Left jaded by an industry of emptiness and superficiality, Jack's demons are getting the better of him, until he meets Ally. The first time Jack sees her, she's performing "La Vie En Rose" at a drag club that he’s stumbled into in search of whiskey. Surrounded by drag queens, Ally has altered her looks to fit in as best she can, but it's the power and purity of her voice that stands out. In awe of her performance, Jack approaches Ally backstage and asks her to have a drink together at the bar, and it's here where Jack lays out his philosophy on being a true artist. "Talent comes from everywhere but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that's a whole other bag. And unless you get out there and you try to do it, you'll never know. That's just the truth."
Ally does have something to say — turns out she's one hell of a songwriter, too. In one of the movie's most soul-stirring sequences, Ally belts out some lines from a song she's working on to an awestruck Jack in a parking lot. A few days later, he drags the skittish ingénue on stage at one of his shows to sing a duet of the song, "Shallow," and Ally becomes a superstar overnight. Their relationship continues to blossom as her popularity grows, and while they support one another, Jack's love for her can’t overcome his depression. In one of his songs, "Maybe It's Time," the chorus goes, "It takes a lot to change a man, and it takes a lot to try; maybe it’s time to let the old ways die." For Jack, Ally may be the only thing worth trying for, but every time he reaches for the bottle, he drags the person he loves most down with him.
A Star is Born is the rare remake that not only gets it right but does it better than any of its predecessors. Cooper blew me away with his deft direction — it's seriously mind-boggling that a movie this well-crafted and affecting is the work of a first-time director. Of course, it helps when your cinematographer is frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique (nominated for an Academy Award for Black Swan). Libatique films the musical performances from the perspective of the performers, no wide shots from the audience's point of view. By incorporating various techniques — handheld, Steadicam, long tracking shots — the DP and his camera operator, Scott Sakamoto, achieve a unique visual style that blends the glitz and glamor of a Hollywood production with the gritty authenticity of a documentary. By keeping the focus up close and personal, the lens lets us experience the intoxicating energy of performing live in front of a crowd while also taking part in a very intimate and sometimes tragic relationship offstage.
I can't go further without talking about the performances in this movie, which are phenomenal across the board. To develop his character's musical style, Cooper took guitar, piano, and voice lessons for six months to learn how to play and sing as Jackson Maine. The vocal performances were recorded live on the day of filming — nothing pre-recorded — and that commitment to realness captures the truth in each performance. Likewise, Gaga delivers a restrained, vulnerable performance as a struggling artist whose insecurity feels light years away from her glittery, haute couture stage persona. Together, Cooper and Gaga are unstoppable, with undeniable chemistry that makes the film feel more like an autobiography than a fictional love story. Cooper surrounds himself with an equally impressive ensemble, including Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, and Anthony Ramos, who play roles critical to understanding who Jack and Ally are and where they’ve come from.
I can't overstate how infatuated I am with this movie. Cooper and Gaga both deserve Oscar nominations for their roles, and I would be shocked if A Star is Born doesn't out-perform its predecessors and win several awards. Cooper's directorial debut is without a doubt the best movie I've seen this year so far, and one that audiences, critics, and all Academy voters can all get behind as an entertaining and emotionally engaging mainstream film that feels like an indie, art-house music documentary. It's the most thoughtful and sincere movie I've seen in a while, and one I know will resonate with artists caught in the 9-5 grind, working side-gigs, tirelessly chasing their dreams in hopes of one day breaking free and sharing their gift with the world.
Adam's Rating: 5 out of 5
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