The Pitch: For the fourth time in American film history, a grizzled veteran performer with a wealth of troubles happens upon a rare and untapped talent. As both struggle with the pressures of fame and fortune, she rises to prominence as his own begins to wane. For 2018, it’s the country-tinged rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), who leaves his soul on the stage every night and drowns in a haze of pills and booze the rest of the time. One night, he stumbles into a drag club and watches Ally (Lady Gaga) deliver a rendition of “La Vie En Rose” that cuts through the noise of celebrity life and stirs the soul on a profound level. Soon they’re making music together, falling in love with one another, and discovering the hard way that Jackson’s troubles run far deeper than either may be able to stand.
Watch As They Dive In: Much ballyhoo has been made about Cooper selecting the classic tale of rising stars and tumultuous love for his directorial debut. In every way, A Star is Born radiates the energy of a passion project, from the showy opening shots of Cooper shredding through a guitar solo at Coachella to the sweet, impassioned intimacy shared between its two stars from scene to scene. One of the most curious directorial touches Cooper brings to his version of Star is the way in which so many of the film’s dramatic highs are framed in tight, inescapable close-ups. When they stop in a parking lot to muse over what eventually becomes the film’s key duet, “Shallow,” Cooper frames himself and Gaga in close proximity, a visual approach that carries over to one of the film’s several thrilling setpieces when Ally is unwittingly dragged onstage to perform the song alongside him. It’s a story of rock stars and A-list fame told in small moments and claustrophobic shouting matches, an epic made small to moving effect.
This approach also points the spotlight squarely at Cooper and Gaga, who both make the absolute most of their meaty leading parts. Cooper delivers an appropriately showy turn for what’s already being touted as a coming-out party for his Serious Auteur status, and he brings a wealth of raw vulnerability to some of Jackson’s blurrier passages that almost manages to outpace how demonstratively he’s swinging for the cheap seats throughout. He goes virtually everywhere an actor can for the sake of high drama, from crying jags to slurry monologues to fevered onstage performances, and while it’s stirring in some contexts (his screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters has a particularly biting ear for the vitriol of family and domestic disputes), it’s hard to shake the feeling that Cooper is Acting with a capital A. There’s a transparency with which he chases the basest emotions that’s occasionally a distraction throughout.
Most of his best scenes are shared with Gaga, and if Cooper delivers a turn that seems alternately earnest and rehearsed, it’s Gaga who tears her way off the screen as the facet of A Star is Born that people remember most. Where most of her onscreen appearances to date have mined the well-crafted public persona she’s built around herself in the past decade or so, Star pushes her to places that feel almost uncomfortably personal at points. While the film’s implications that Ally is too physically unremarkable to “make it” feel more than a little dated (it’s a carryover plot point from earlier versions of the same story), the trembling vulnerability that Gaga brings whenever Jackson pushes her a little further into the foreground is palpable all the same. Onscreen, Gaga creates an aura not unlike the one she’s betrayed in interviews here and there over the years: a woman whose talent is too incredible to stay buried forever, but who may not be capable of handling what fame tends to do to people, especially women. Her performance is shy and thunderous, and she perfectly negotiates the shaky balance between playing herself down enough to fit Ally as a character, and allowing the brassy power that made her a pop star to catapult her into film stardom.
Singers/Songwriters: A Star is Born invests a great deal in its soundtrack; between Gaga’s incredible vocal register and Cooper’s meticulous preparations to teach himself piano and guitar and drop his voice down to Sam Elliott octaves, it’s the hinge on which the entirety of Cooper’s remake swings. To that end, Star slowly reveals itself as a neo-musical of sorts, staging the majority of the film’s biggest emotional beats in song. Curiously, it feels like a tighter version of what La La Land was trying to do, a melancholic musical about how the realization of superstar dreams usually comes at a great personal cost. “Shallow” will undoubtedly be the number that has everybody talking, but several of Cooper’s tunes take on the rollicking full-band cadence of Jason Isbell and other outlaw revivalists of the moment, and some of the gentler in-studio collaborations between Cooper and Gaga allow the film to show off its talented leads in a way that feels earned, rather than cheesy. This soundtrack is going to be a massive hit, in an era where film soundtracks don’t tend to break out the way they once did.
The Verdict: To return to an earlier point, the best of A Star is Born is found in some of its most minute episodes. Jackson shares a hungover interlude of comfort with his next-door neighbor (Dave Chappelle), and Cooper the director offers a window into how unnaturally charismatic even the sloppiest rock stars are, and why the people who know them best usually seem to take a kinder hand. Ally helps Jackson’s embattled brother/roadie Bobby (Sam Elliott) drag him into bed after he drinks himself unconscious, and they share a knowing exchange about the magnetism of his talents, even as both remain aware that he’s burning every candle at every end. A Star is Born is refreshingly unsentimental about what a come-up in the entertainment industry looks like, and while Jackson occasionally begins to read like a Walk Hard-level caricature of a troubled artist, the film carries itself knowingly when it comes to lingering over the things people force themselves to do, just for the sake of maintaining comfortable illusions.
There’s an emotional gravity to A Star is Born that goes a long way toward both setting it apart from its predecessors and situating it as one of the substantial modern studio love stories. Like many of the great ones, it’s messy, preoccupied with opportunities for showy displays of actorly craft. But also like many of the great ones, its stars generate the kind of chemistry that can’t be faked onscreen. Cooper may be playing to the back of the house, but he’s visibly giving it every fiber of his being every time he’s onscreen. Gaga may naturally radiate star quality, but she dials it back to deliver a performance that’s all jangled nerves and jaw-dropping vocal delivery. A Star is Born isn’t a new love story, or even an especially unique one. But it’s a traditional love story told supremely well, and sometimes that’s exactly what audiences go to the movies to see.
Where’s It Playing?: A Star is Born is opening wide around the country and kicking off Oscar season in earnest this Friday, October 5th.