Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron
What do you often get when you mix a story that’s a remake of an older (and much revered) film with well-known performers? More often than not you end up with rubbish (and unecessary) films like 2003’s The Italian Job starring Mark Wahlberg and 2006’S The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage (though that one is a guilty pleasure to few. Very few). A Star is Born has had three previous versions: William A. Wellman’s original from 1937, George Cukor’s in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and Frank Pierson’s 1976 incarnation starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, with the latter two versions probably being the most famous and popular. Until now..? Has Bradley Cooper, in his directorial and screenwriting debut that features pop megastar Lady Gaga, managed to pull off the near-impossible, or is it closer to a near-miss?
Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a rock star in every possible way; from the dizzying heights of his heady fame to the brittle lows of his self-destructive alcohol and drug addiction. One evening, after a show, he stumbles into a drag bar where he meets girl-next-door Ally (Gaga). After seeing her perform (the only female allowed to do so at this bar) Ally’s friend Ramon (Ramos) introduces Jackson to Ally. Jackson (by now just known as ‘Jack’) invites Ally to his show the next evening, in which he gets her to perform alongside him. As their friendship grows and blossoms into romance, Ally’s performances begin to take centre stage. Her fame starts to overshadow Jack’s, causing friction between them and triggering further meltdowns from Jack as they try to balance their lives together.
Cooper’s film is generally incomparable to past versions. The opening, when the title fades in, is very old-school musical-esque, and you could probably note a few intended-or-not nods to previous versions, but overall this film stands completely on its own two feet. Cooper has brought this story very much up to date and into the modern age. He deftly tackles a lot of issues facing many wannabe performers and further issues plaguing performers who have ‘made it’ and are under immense pressure, from being turned away because of how they look to being moulded into something/someone no longer recognisable: the ‘manufacturing’ process of ‘what sells’. Of course this has always been an issue in the entertainment industry, but nowadays with the internet and social media that scrutiny is getting evermore intense, and this reflects hugely in the film’s themes. Ally and Jack both perform to huge crowds, and while they both seem to feel quite at home onstage there’s a conflict between their vulnerability that’s laid bare through their music and their pure love for it. Conversely, Cooper orders so many close-ups that at times it feels incredibly intimate, as though we’re being shown something very private from one of them or between the two of them. And yet it never feels like we’re intruding. We’ve been invited to peak into this world not many are privy to, glimpsing its beauty and, when it’s stripped of that, being repulsed at its ugliness.
If you know much about Lady Gaga and her journey, particularly at the start of her career, you’ll know that her story is sadly similar to Ally’s, in being rejected for how she looks despite her immense talents as a singer/songwriter, hence the stage name and persona (and if you didn’t know, you do now). The irony is that Lady Gaga, if we were to go down that route, is stunning, both inside and out, and this is also reflected in her overall performance that clearly comes from a very honest place. She’s always been an extremely talented singer and stage performer, but she has now firmly proven she has mounds of acting credibility. Her turn in television’s American Horror Story is one thing, but in A Star is Born she gets to find out what she can really do, the depths she can go to. This could partly be in thanks to Cooper’s writing and direction as he leads Gaga through some real intensity, but it also shows just how talented an actress she really is to be able to convey Ally as the three-dimensional character Cooper wonderfully wrote her as. And when she sings… honestly, if you don’t get goosebumps and/or get tears in your eyes then I suggest you get your emotions checked. Her performances are so raw you may wonder where Gaga ends and Ally begins; Gaga is Ally and Ally is Gaga.
As much as Gaga bounds off the screen, Cooper holds his own mesmerisingly well whilst multitasking with directorial duties. It’s possible this could be his best performance to date. Jack is a quietly troubled man (except when he’s embarrassing himself and Ally as an inebriated mess) with a lot of demons in his past that refuse to go away, probably in part because Jack employs his brother, Bobby (Elliott, in a fabulous performance), as part of his crew. Between them they have a lot of unsolved issues that bubble to the surface every now and again, giving Jack the depth his character needs in order to be something of a dark spot in the light that is Ally. Cooper masterfully crafted his character into someone who is probably worryingly relatable to so many people, particularly performers. Sometimes you’ll want to slap him, other times you’ll want to hold him tight and tell him everything is ok, which is pretty much what Ally goes through with Jack. Gaga and Cooper blend together with such remarkable chemistry that it’s almost a crime that they’ve never collaborated in any way artistically before (Gaga’s insistence that they both perform live meant Cooper had to strengthen his vocals, but it absolutely paid off). This was the perfect project for the both of them.
Ultimately, Gaga and Cooper are perfect, and A Star is Born has it all. The plot is solid, it doesn’t shy away from being brutally honest, the performances are strong and the songs are gorgeous. Cooper does a good job as a fading, tinnitus-ridden rock star, though if there was one minimal criticism it would be that at times his voice goes so low and broken that it can be hard to hear what he’s saying. Granted it’s part of the character’s declining health, but it makes understanding the dialogue a little difficult. But this really is a minor criticism. Gaga is sensational, whether on her own or opposite Cooper. If she is going to go further with her acting it would be nice to see her go by her real name (Stefani Germanotta). We see who she is through her music and now we see her in her screen performances. She shines so brightly it’s hard not to. Whether they’re performing together or solo, you will want to applaud after their musical performances, and even maybe at the very end. Cooper said directing was his first choice before acting, but his patience has paid off hugely. He has created something that will prove to be just as timeless as older versions of A Star is Born, and Gaga is certainly up there with Garland and Streisand. If a star hadn’t been born (this way) already, she certainly would have now.