October 3, 2018
At a key moment in A Star Is Born, Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott) explains that “music is essentially 12 notes between any octave.” Bobby explains that music is a cycle of repetition every musician, every storyteller, utilizes over and over, using their own personal vision and voice to make it unique. Considering that the line is spoken in a film that’s been remade four times in the last hundred years speaks volumes about what those notes can do. The basic premise remains: An on-his-way-out male meets an up-and-coming woman and they fall in love. Some of the details change but the resonance never dwindles. Making his mark on this prestigious film while sitting in the director’s chair for the first time is Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), who stars alongside musical phenom Lady Gaga, both offering a unique modern vision on a timeless tale.
World-famous musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) copes with his increasing deafness through drugs and drinking, both habits made worse by an existential sense of loneliness despite being adored by millions. One night by chance Jack discovers Ally (Gaga) singing in a club and he’s immediately entranced by her voice and, by night’s end, utterly smitten with her. Seeing something kindred in their talent, they form a near immediate bond, each pushing the other to bring themselves up instead of letting the world tear them down. As Ally’s success increases, however, Jack’s demons grow ever louder, forcing the couple to examine what matters most: the music or the fame.
Cooper’s displayed time and again what a chameleon he is by jumping from genre to genre with ease and Star is no exception. Demonstrating a patience and skill beyond that of a first-time director, Cooper elects mid-range, closeups and extreme closeups, forcing the audience to examine every inch of the frame as the actors perform. It’s in the way Ally first sees Jack perform with the camera placing Gaga outside of the frame and taking on her POV, looking through a ribbon curtain with Cooper standing on a stage in front of her. She may have heard his music, but Ally gets the chance to experience Jack in the same way he experienced her: a voice first with an obstructed view of the form. When the camera cuts back to Ally’s face, it’s an extreme closeup and, like her, we are unable to look away. This may be the key to Cooper’s approach and why it’s as powerful as it is, enabling the emotionality of Star to reverberate through the audience long after the film finishes.
If the direction is one end of a weapon, then the music is the other. “Shallow” is a duet between Jack and Ally that serves as a symbol of the bond between these two characters. Though it was a song she’d been working on before meeting him, she’s inspired to craft a refrain born out of Jack’s bravado façade, which blends into it perfectly. He takes what she creates and builds the music around it to uplift it and then gives her a chance for her voice to be heard. . All of the songs in Star are original works written by Cooper and Gaga, in partnership with other artists including Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, and Mark Ronson. Every song within Star feels emotionally significant to the portrayal of these characters and that’s a not-so-insignificant achievement considering the incarnations of the main roles this time around live in the music industry.
When talk of another A Star Is Born remake began to swirl, the obvious comparisons to previous versions– especially the 1976 Frank Pierson-directed version featuring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand-– were made. Even though the script doesn’t spend much time setting up relationships between many of the characters, all of those involved bring their absolute A-game. Cooper as Jack is as charismatic as audiences expect a famous rock star to be, yet his small gestures, subtle looks and inflections add enormous weight to every scene. The real star, however, is Lady Gaga. If anyone were going to follow in the footsteps of Judy Garland and Streisand, Gaga undeniable fits the bill. Whatever you might think of her musical career, there is no Ally without her. Considering how much Ally’s story seems an echo of Gaga’s own, there’s no surprise at how authentic the entirety of her portrayal feels. Rounding out the cast are Elliott (The Hero), Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos (Monsters and Men), Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine), and Rafi Gavron (Snitch). Each are given opportunities in moments small and large to make their characters feel real, never giving way to falsehood in any capacity. Of the performers, it seems safe to assume that Cooper, Gaga, and Elliott are going to end up nominees come the 90th Academy Awards.
The only real issue with A Star Is Born is the awareness of length the further into the film the audience goes. The roller coaster of Jack and Ally is filled with so many peaks and valleys that it’s easy to become removed from the experience, but an awareness of just how long you’ve been in the theater starts to wash over you. However, as much as the audience may become aware of how long the film is, it never drags. In fact, it’s the patience Cooper displays moving from moment to moment, action to reaction, that gives the ending of Star such powerful weight. And it will weigh on you the same way it weighs on the characters. That’s a powerful testament to both Cooper’s treatment of the material as it is the performances, solidifying A Star Is Born as not only a strong film, but one of the best films of 2018.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5