Director: Bradley Cooper
15 | 2h 15min | Drama , Music , Romance | 3 October 2018 (UK)
A star vehicle is reborn in Bradley Cooper’s hugely enjoyable, shamelessly melodramatic, and technically swish take on the decades-old film story. Each generation looks like it will get its own version of A Star Is Born; a seemingly timeless romance/tragedy where the plot sees a young female singer and actress rise far above the fading male star who gives her that first big break. In the 1930s William Wellman directed Janet Gaynor as the young actress on the way up who falls for alcoholic fading idol Fredric March. Judy Garland and James Mason made for a memorable 1954 version under George Cukor’s helmsmanship, whereas Barbra Streisand famously failed to get Elvis to star opposite her in Frank Pierson’s 70s remake (Kris Kristofferson landed the part of the rock star fading out tragically after guiding her to stardom). This time however we have four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper taking the role of the male rock star headed downhill opposite multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music and style icon Lady Gaga playing the young female singer taking an all-or-nothing crack at stardom and professional fulfilment. It turns out to be a winning combination in terms of chemistry and that all-important sense of authenticity, and this helps the film glide over some second half flaws
Cooper took this project over from Clint Eastwood and made it his passion project, learning to sing and play whilst also taking a co-writing credit. His enthusiasm for this material shows, though his greener co-star turns out to be more than comfortable with the camera up close. Bringing the story up to date for the era where Youtube views signal your trajectory and fame comes and goes fast, Cooper makes the male lead this time not an actor but a famous yet increasingly out-of-touch country rock musician named Jackson Maine. With messy long locks and projecting the easy swagger of a Southerner who still has some of that essential boozy charm that helped supplement his raw talent, Cooper also gives Jackson a striking drawl that evokes the unmistakable voice of Sam Elliott. In fact, Elliot (very much this film’s MVP, owning some of the more poignant moments) was sought out to join the cast by Cooper and plays Jackson’s much older half brother Bobby, who also serves as his manager and, in a nice meta touch, we will see call his wayward brother out on appropriating his vocal timbre and singing style. Jackson first appears in this film not on stage however, but slumped sozzled in the back of a limo cruising the locale of his latest gig for a late night watering hole, a result, we soon learn, of an increasingly destructive alcohol addiction supplemented with snorting various crushed pills. He picks a drag bar, simply because it is open.
It is here that Jackson encounters - and swiftly takes under his wing - waitress and struggling singer Ally (Gaga), who proceeds to deliver a zestful late-night take on La Vie en Rose as her drag friends cheer on. Gaga is unsurprisingly no slouch at making this kind of stuff pop off the screen, and Cooper’s and her chemistry is winning and believable. Though the film speeds along much faster than the near three-hour Cukor version, the build-up to Ally’s breakout success is peppered with time for the smaller emotional beats where we see her and Jackson connect; whether it is the pair reminiscing and singing accapella on the pavement outside a 7-Eleven way past midnight during their meet-cute (which is lit and shot so its neon signage and colourful shelves seem like a vibrant foreshadowing of the stadiums Ally will soon be packing out), or Jackson tenderly peeling off Ally’s fake eyebrows in her dressing room. Things reach a well-handled crescendo when Jackson takes things to the next level by dragging Ally on stage to join him at a gig in Arizona weeks later, wanting her to perform the same song he heard her tentatively trial out on him. This ear worm of a number - “Shallow”- is one clear standout song from a roster of tracks that never sink below ‘decent’, and in this sequence the evocative and immersive cinematography, rich production design, and Cooper’s commitment to the technical details of the live music experience (he shot many of the live acts in front of a real audience, even taking his production to Coachella) all align. The icing on the cake is seeing Gaga as Ally slowly shake off that nervousness and own the mic…and the stage. The two go on tour as a duet act and start a passionate relationship in parallel, though Ally senses right away Jackson has plenty of demons.
Of course, planets don’t stay in alignment, and the second act sees Jackson’s alcoholism, tinnitus and drug addiction accelerate his decline, whilst Ally fits largely comfortably into her role as the face of fame 2.0 in the Instagram era. Here the film stumbles a little, largely because it starts to feel hurried (there are scenes which feel oddly truncated) and the 21st century backdrop isn’t exploited in any novel way. Jackson remains, like the James Mason character, a character ruined by addictions, so a chance to maybe explore a darker side of male success inflated by patriarchy and toxic masculinity - hot topics today - is missed. Jackson is basically a nice guy who isn’t really jealous of Ally’s success, his addictions just make him seem that way, though Cooper nods towards the career-risking and emotionally hurtful behaviour of Mason’s troubled actor with a similar awards ceremony drunken disaster scene that might have you watching through your fingers. I was a tad ambiguous also about the arc of Ally’s success; she goes in a more pop and R’nB oriented direction after British agent Rez (Rafi Gavron) offers her a standalone contract separate from Jackson, but the stereotypically slimy nature of this impresario gives the impression Ally has sold out, a strange shift in the film’s, until that point, equal balance of sympathies. That being said, this direction may simply have been a way of connecting Ally back to the real-life image of the woman playing her. And Gaga, though playing a character who admittedly gets her start thanks to male generosity and arguably even sacrifice, keeps Ally a self-aware and passionate figure, albeit a tragic one who can’t escape the wheel of fame that brushes out the old to replace it with the new. Sometimes stars are crossed and not entwined.