Director: Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga
Running time: 135 minutes
While on the hunt for a stiff drink after a gig, ageing country rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) stumbles into a low-key bar and across Ally (Gaga) – an unknown singer-songwriter who he quickly falls for, before thrusting her swiftly into the limelight. As their relationship grows, their paths diverge from one another: hers to stardom and his towards some rather familiar demons.
It’s ok folks, call off the search. If ever we need to find someone to play rock’n’roller Eddie Vedder in a biopic of his life, we need look no further than Bradley Cooper. In seeking out invaluable insight and guidance from the Pearl Jam frontman as part of his prep for starring in his own directorial debut, Cooper has clearly modelled the wavy locks and untamed stubble of leading man Jackson Maine on the celebrated musician – with equal shades of Kris Kristofferson in 1976’s version of A Star Is Born, of course. He’s got the lungs to boot, too. But, until Vedder gets the cinematic treatment, we have A Star Is Born to fill that Brad and Gaga shaped void in our hearts we never knew we had.
The third incarnation of the 1937 film – and closest to the aforementioned 70’s remake starring Barbra Streisand alongside Kristofferson – 2018’s A Star Is Born follows hard-drinking, leather-skinned country musician, Jackson Maine, who discovers young, talented singer Ally in a bar one night. Captivated by her performance, the film is one of blossoming romance, flowering potential, and decaying legacies as Ally and Jackson’s love for one another etches closer as their careers move in opposite directions – hers to stardom; his to the bottom of a bottle.
On the surface, the narrative beats of A Star Is Born are ones we all know very well: boy meets girl, they fall in love, but soon the weight of life’s tribulations falls heavy upon them. However, Cooper’s story is a fairy-tale grounded firmly in realism, and a film that runs much deeper; working as a multi-layered exploration of both the uniting and destructive power of love, life and fame. It’s a musical in the loosest sense – rather, a film about music – that strips back spectacle and instead demands that it is the sound, the words, and the reflective, poignant meaning they hold, that shine through above all else.
Cooper’s camera remains delicately and intricately intimate throughout, often diverting our gaze away from the crowd, and honing focus in on the faces of the few, as he weaves a complex and mature depiction of souls both bonded and separated by the very same unwavering passion. While it might occasionally chime in with a few cheesy notes, and some rather lacklustre, underdeveloped characterisation and sub-plotting – in the form of Rafi Gavron’s music producer and Sam Elliott’s aging older brother, Bobby Maine – A Star Is Born tunes its central story admirably as it lays on thick the emotional bassline.
Cooper rightly deserves every one of the plaudits inevitably coming his way. His performance both on and off-screen cement him as one of the most rounded and impressive talents of our time. But it is Gaga, however, who is the film’s true revelation. As the rags-to-riches character who the audience immediately pin their allegiances to, the success and power of Cooper’s narrative rests largely on her shoulders. And in casting one of the planet’s biggest, and most recognisable pop stars, A Star Is Born always runs the risk of quickly transitioning from intriguing character study to Hollywood’s equivalent of a Lady Gaga world tour DVD. It is testament to both Cooper’s direction, and Gaga’s performance then that as Ally, she gives such a wonderfully delicate, expressive and complex performance that we quickly forget we’re watching Lady Gaga at all.
Instead, we witness the rise of a talented performer who is both fragile and strong; never quite relinquishing the vulnerable insecurity about her own image, and the fierce inner bite that means punching a guy in a bar is most certainly not outside her capabilities. It’s in Gaga’s subtle change of facial expressions though – going from the wide-eyed newbie to whom everything about the music scene is new and exciting to fully-fledged star balancing the joys and troubles such success brings – that she truly flourishes, and gives a convincing, compelling portrayal that is arguably the finest and most complete pop-star-to-big-screen performance of the decade.
This year’s La La Land will simultaneously warm and break your heart. As directorial debuts go, A Star Is Born is nothing short of sublime.