By: BabyRuth (Two Beers) –
After months of build-up and positive buzz, A Star is Born is finally here! Can Bradley Cooper direct? Can Lady Gaga carry a leading film role? Can a big musical melodrama based on a story from over eighty years ago still be relevant in 2018? (Spoiler: yes, yes, and yes.)
This is the fourth incarnation of the saga (well, fifth if you’re including Glitter, which you probably aren’t, but technically I suppose it counts. Sort of…) of two artists who fall in love at two very different stages in their careers.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country-rock superstar. Onstage he’s at the top of his game, playing packed venues full of adoring fans. Once offstage, he’s grizzled and tired, always with one bottle of booze in his hand and another of pills in his pocket. One night after a concert and out of liquor, he asks his driver to find a local bar for one more drink.
Ally (Lady Gaga) works as a server and moonlights as a singer in a drag bar, which just so happens to be the one Jackson stumbles into. When Ally takes the stage and performs a stirring rendition of “La Vie En Rose,” Jackson is captivated.
The two share a magical night of stick-on eyebrows, bar fights, and parking lot vocalizing with a hefty dose of flirtation. Before long (the very next day) Ally’s life as she knows it is forever changed when Jackson sends a limo for her to be his guest at his next show.
But he’s not content with her watching from the side of the stage. He invites her to join him and sing the very song she belted out the night before in front of tens of thousands of people (yes, he memorized the song and put together an arrangement, and taught it to the band in a couple hours and SHUT UP, this is a beautiful, bittersweet story of two artists sharing their gifts and finding love in the process goddammit!). She hesitates but quickly works up the courage to step on to the stage and then into the spotlight alongside him. Everyone loves her, though no one more than Jackson, and the mutual infatuation leads to something much more as the two become inseparable musical and emotional soul mates.
But we’ve heard this song and/or have, quite literally, seen this movie before. When Ally realizes just how far gone Jackson is in his struggle with addiction, it’s already too late for her to listen to her head.
As Jackson’s star falls, Ally’s rises, with the help of a sleazy producer (Rafi Gavron) who molds her into something she isn’t but that she eventually accepts.
This one was so hyped up that I was nervous to see it, but rest assured, everything you’ve heard is true and the gamble of a first-time director and first-time lead actress paid off incredibly.
Cooper proves to be not only a double-threat (acting and directing) but a triple one as well (singing). He reportedly spent as much time learning how to convincingly appear to be a seasoned performer as he did learning how to sing and play guitar. He pulls it off and then some.
Cooper’s proven to be a talented dramatic actor (I mean, his work playing against a fake baby is proof enough), so it should come as no surprise that he’s great here. His character gets more of a backstory than in previous iterations of Star – some family drama as well as a struggle with tinnitus in addition to his substance abuse, and he is up to the task.
As a director, he’s confident, but never showy, and tells a story through thoughtful decisions and intimate long-held close-ups. The concert footage is particularly well-filmed (credit also to cinematographer Matthew Libatique), always focusing on what’s going on in every crook of the stage, rather than wide-shots of the audience’s view. A first-time director couldn’t ask for a better debut.
Then, of course, there’s Lady Gaga. She’s acted before, but it’s always come off as Lady Gaga doing a character (American Horror Story, anyone?). In A Star is Born, she disappears into Ally. Especially in early scenes when she’s brunette and bare-faced (Hollywood’s version of “not pretty” yeah, okay, sure whatever), but even later in the film when Ally goes through the commercial popstar machine and looks more Gaga-esque – it’s still Ally. Gaga’s natural ability and captivating screen presence all but cement her status as a Best Actress frontrunner in the upcoming awards season.
Here’s hoping she’s seated near DiCaprio.
As good as they each are individually (and again, they are fantastic), it’s the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga that really makes A Star is Born so special. From the first moment they lock eyes to the last, it is off the charts. What at first sounded like a random pairing has proven to be one of those magical cinematic unions that will likely stand the test of time and be mentioned among great on-screen couples. Seriously. It’s that good.
The beginning scenes of Jackson and Ally’s relationship are no doubt the most enjoyable part of the film. Their first meeting and getting-to-know-each-other night together with all those looks (those looks, my god) are enough to send vicarious goosebumps to even the most cynical anti-romantic. Coupled with Ally’s Cinderella-like plucked out of obscurity to living her dreams rise, it’s dizzying in the best possible way.
But it’s those harder-to-watch parts that really show just how great Cooper and Gaga are together.
An example is a scene right about the point the high starts to wear off at and reality starts to sink in for the characters as well as the audience. Ally is physically at her most vulnerable – naked in a bathtub – when a conversation with an especially sloshed Jackson escalates into an intense argument. It’s one of those fights that can only happen between two people who know each other so well that they know exactly what buttons to push and exactly what words will hurt the most. It’s so devastating it’s almost hard to watch and is so brutally honest, it feels voyeuristic. Not since Before Midnight has a marital fight been so depicted with such raw authenticity. You never once see any “acting.”
It’s a tricky feat. Only with a strong and believable chemistry between two actors who completely trust each other can a scene like this work. And only with a pairing the viewer feels personally invested in can it hold any stakes for the audience.
Many will take different things away from this film. For anyone who has ever struggled with addiction or possibly even more so, anyone who has ever loved someone dealing with it, who has ever made excuses or tried to “save” them, this film is a particularly gut-wrenching experience because of the unflinching, heartbreaking realism of the depiction of the disease (as the screenplay makes a point to describe it). It’s ugly and it’s never romanticized, and that’s important.
Enough of this sad stuff, let’s talk about the music! Cooper and Gaga not only make for a winning on-screen duo, but a pretty damn great songwriting team as well (along with Lukas Nelson- yup, Willie’s son). Even without seeing the film, the standout song “Shallow” is likely already burrowed into your brain. But that’s just the beginning. The soundtrack is gorgeous and every instance of music is incorporated into the story with care, moving it along rather than stopping the film in its tracks for a “number.” The performances were all filmed live for added authenticity (it’s almost not fair how talented they are).
Finally, the supporting cast must be mentioned. In just a few scenes Sam Elliot delivers a heartfelt (and yet another award-worthy) performance as Jackson’s brother (yes, brother). There are also a couple surprising career-best turns by Andrew Dice Clay (yes, Andrew Dice Clay) as Ally’s father and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s longtime best friend. And then there’s Charlie, Bradley Cooper’s real-life dog who holds his own against his hooman co-stars.
The film has a runtime of two hours, 16 minutes and while the first half breezes by, the viewer will start to feel it during the latter. There are obvious instances of first-time director (and co-writer) Cooper not wanting to kill any of his darlings as several scenes could have been shortened or altogether eliminated to help with the pacing. Much of it focuses on Jackson, leaving Ally to simply react and halting her own character arc. It’s still engaging, just a bit less, serving as a testament to just how near-perfect the first half is.
This could have been a big ‘ol mess (look no further than the 1976 version. Sorry Babs.), but instead emerges as a major award contender and coming out party for its two stars, with mesmerizing performances, beautiful filmmaking, and one hell of a soundtrack. See this one now in a theater. Bring tissues.
A Star is Born (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever anyone in the movie aside from Jackson does (because we encourage responsible drinking here at MovieBoozer)
Take a Drink: when you catch a nod to one of the previous versions of A Star is Born
Take a Drink: whenever Ally’s father mentions he is a better singer than Sinatra
Take a Drink: whenever Charlie makes an appearance (Good boy!)
Take a Drink: whenever you catch yourself tearing up (oh just let it out! You’re not the only one)
Do a Shot: every time a character punches someone
Do a Shot: whenever Jackson asks Ally to turn around so he can take another look at her
Do a Shot: when Ally traces her profile with her finger