Synopsis – A musician helps a young singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
My Take – Right from its inception, this seemed like an odd project for Bradley Cooper, the star of American Sniper and The Hangover films, to mark his directorial debut, after all remaking a film for the fourth time’s a risky move, even by mainstream Hollywood’s standards. Originally conceptualized by writer/director William Wellman in 1937, a film which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, and scored 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, which was followed by a 1954 version starring Judy Garland, and then later in 1976 with Barbra Streisand, and of course there is the unofficial Bollywood remake in the form of 2013 blockbuster Aashiqui 2. The basic idea of a fading star falling in love while launching the career of a young female talent and then watching from the sidelines as she eclipses him, is a story as old as time, however, with passionate directing and acting throughout each remake has managed to stand on its own.
Likewise, this film following its debut at 75th Venice International Film Festival, had managed to create seemingly unreachable levels of hype, and unlike most films, manages to also achieve them. Yes, the film is a joy as it touches your emotions and grows on you from the love of the two central characters and the pain combined with fame and sorrow make this musical drama a wonderful watch. Here, director Bradley Cooper manages to instill life and a reasonable degree of freshness by capturing the intimacy, and the skill to make a film that’s deeply personal to himself, to co-star Lady Gaga, and to the characters they portray.
Without a doubt, when the awards season comes knocking, this film is undeniably a forerunner, mainly for Lady Gaga for her jaw dropping performance and for Cooper who as director and actor, brought everything together. The songwriters, the cinematography, and the sound design are all superbly balanced to create the best possible version of this story in contemporary times.
The story follows Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a western rock megastar with a soft heart, who despite struggling with drinking and drug use manages to perform nearly every night in front of thousands of fans who adore his music. Jackson is a man who’s got plenty of personal demons besides the bottle as his family friction with his manager and much older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) weighs on his heart heavy. However things take a turn when following a gig he asks his driver to stop at a random bar, which turns out to be hosting its weekly drag night and comes across its guest performer, Ally (Lady Gaga).
A waitress at a much fancier joint by day, she’s a singer by night, and because she used to work at the bar, its proprietors let her have an act in the drag show. She sings La Vie en Rose and brings the house down. In the time it takes to sing that one well-worn song, she wins Jack’s artistic respect and, it is clear, his heart. The next night when she attends his show, he whisks her on stage to sing the song they wrote together. The crowd goes berserk and soon the two are touring the country together. Still love is not without struggle and heartache as Ally becomes famous and well known while Jackson’s music and personal life both take a downward path with alcoholism as he just can’t escape his own dark shadows.
For all its modern trappings, the film is an old-world romance between two perfectly matched leads. The film sucks you in from the beginning with the roar of a raucous concert audience, the hard beat of the drums on Jackson’s stage, and his hypnotic swagger as he plays for thousands. If you were one of the millions of people who have seen the trailer for this film, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about, but it stems from an extremely engaging and powerful film. The visuals by cinematographer Matthew Libatique include beautifully lit concert sequences, gorgeous close-ups and intimate moments that showcase the frisson between Cooper and Gaga. Libatique and Editor Jay Cassidy create an immersive backdrop for the love between Jackson and Ally to flourish and then flounder. The screenplay by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper carries a moody journey as we watch the characters mushroom in their relationship, defined mainly by broad strokes and otherwise shallow highlights of what it means to be together.
This is a story that is not just about love, mentoring, and honesty in art, but also about self-destruction, ambition, heartbreak, addiction and sacrifice. It’s a study, as well, of the other side of fame, especially in modern times when artistic integrity often capitulates to marketing pressures. This is conveyed by the conduct of music label executive and Ally’s manager Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron). As Jack cautions Ally just before she is about to appear on a high profile show: “… you don’t worry about why they’re listening or how long they’re going to be listening for. You just tell them what you want to say.” This is Ally’s story as much as Jack’s — she’s the star in the title, after all. He lights the spark beneath her, but she already contains everything needed to burst into flame, including a healthy skepticism about losing control of her own image in an image-based business. Though she suffers a few growing pains in the form of lousy pop songs, she is more than capable of finding her way. Here, director Cooper, deftly creates intimacy between Jackson and Ally, without which the story would certainly not be as successful.
In stadiums housing thousands of fans, in small dressing rooms packed with screaming Drag Queens, in a loud dive bar, in the parking lot of an all-night-grocer, director Cooper uses tight framing and sound impeccably to make it seem like they’re the only two people in the world. He also uses contrasting moments of extreme chaos with silence and stillness, which is also something that is done brilliantly. It’s a painfully accurate exploration of fame in contemporary society; the celebrity pushing through screaming fans and flashing lights to get to a place of unnerving quiet. The remake also updates the gender politics and showbiz realities that have driven all versions of the story. The film acknowledges the power couples who abound in the American music world.
Two can sometimes be better than one, and rather than fussing about Ally’s stratospheric rise to fame, the film turns its attention to Jackson’s dysfunctional past. The electricity of their connection — and the fact that their relationship develops into something that can bear the weight of both hardship and success for so long — is, the film suggests, due at least as much to their mutual respect for each other’s gifts as creators and performers. It would be wrong to say there’s no hint of jealousy. But where envy creeps in, it never becomes about tearing the other person down; theirs is a loving, passionate, complicated link that lets them both create some of their best work, and become their better selves, too.
This is not a film that is as nuanced or incisive as director Derek Cianfrance‘s Blue Valentine, but it does get a moment or two of injecting heavy, chest-heaving expressions of thought. Despite its predictable story beats, by acknowledging that romance can vacillate under the burden of real conflicts, the film becomes easier to believe, although it does come with a depressing sense of real world disappointment. The final act chooses a romanticized notion of a tortured artist over common sense, but as you know finding a person deeply in love who makes logical decisions is as practical as flying saucers. Some scenes are amputated of their emotional punch and narrative logic, and yet the film runs at a 136-minutes.
At the end, what remains is the image of Lady Gaga with all her vulnerability laid bare. The music, much like it did with the trailer gets inside you, not just inside your head where you find yourself humming a gentle country lilt sang by Cooper, it gets inside your heart and soul and rattles around. It repeats over and over until you’re the one who doesn’t want to let go. Many times in films where music is used it can seem out of place. However, here the songs are used to heighten the emotional tension. Not only is the music fun and upbeat at times, but it also scores moments in the film that are huge gut punches.
A good soundtrack can of course make or break something like this film, but it successfully manages to heighten the emotion and even play a role in the story line. There were tears where they wouldn’t have been if it weren’t for the music, and that’s all that needs to be said. Thanks to the film’s premise, the soundtrack for the film is an explosion of sounds ranging from country, to rock, to R&B, to pop. Bradley Cooper’s efforts in vocal training paired with Gaga’s undeniable talent makes for music heaven and features pretty well something for everyone.
Of course, none of this would have worked if the cast wasn’t synced so well with the film. Led by Bradley Cooper, for whom the 2018 film, this is a passion project in every sense seems to understand that intuitively. Here, he is completely convincing as both the director and lead actor, and is always in control of the rhythms of the 136-minute film as it moves from euphoria to inevitable tragedy. Cooper turns out a moving performance as the shambolic singer who grasps at love, youth and beauty to pull himself out of his stupor. His confidence behind the camera is remarkable, and when in front of it, he expertly pivots the story from Ally to Jackson.
While Cooper should be commended for taking his craft seriously and improving his singing, this is where Lady Gaga shines, to no one’s surprise. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. Here she is luminous, funny, brilliant and hard to look away from. On the other hand we have strong supporting turns from, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos and Rafi Gavron, who manage to hold the two leads up and then some. On the whole, ‘A Star Is Born’ is an excellent present-day spin on a familiar story laced with instantly memorable songs and stellar performances.
Directed – Bradley Cooper
Rated – R
Run Time – 136 minutes