If it’s true there are only seven stories in the world, the roller coaster romance/rise and fall that forms the basis of A Star is Born would be one most often told. A true Hollywood fairy tale if there ever was one, it’s a story that is repeated for a reason. There are just some stories that overcome their basic clichés and fill your soul with hope, wonder, joy, and even heartbreak. Bradley Cooper chose both the safest and most dangerous of movies for his directorial debut. He could stick to the contours of the multiple screen adaptations and produce something stale and, obviously, very familiar. But his take on the fading rocker and superstar student is anything but, and heralds Lady Gaga as a force to be reckoned with on the big screen.
Does anybody even remember where this project began anymore. Back when Clint Eastwood was eyeing Leonardo DiCaprio and a then newly-married Beyoncé for the leading roles? The latter’s casting always felt like a gimmick, and in truth the same could be said of Gaga’s casting. She’s done some strong acting work before, Machete Kills not included, but in A Star is Born she is at once sincere, radiant, and breath-taking. Stunt casting this ain’t. While we are quietly taken aback by Cooper’s skillful direction and Sam Elliott-like performance (interesting because Elliot is a prominent co-star), it’s Gaga who blows us away with her skills as a singer and an actress. For once A Star is Born truly births a brand new star.
This is the second take on the tale set in the music business, a unique obstacle in and of itself. Thankfully, Cooper only skims the surface of the troubles within the pop music industry; nobody needs another lesson in the decline of album sales, do they? Cooper’s Jack Maine is a rousing performer, a true entertainer who only needs his trusty guitar and a cast of thousands willing to hear him play. But after a rousing concert what he really needs is a drink; the look of dejection after gulping down a bottle of vodka tells us all we need to know. This is a guy for whom drunk is the default state of affairs. He stumbles into a drag bar, chats up an eager fan (Anthony Ramos), who points him to the stage where the only girl in the place, Ally (Gaga), stuns him with her rendition of La Vie En Rose. The instant she opened her mouth, she had him; but when she looked him in face, his heart was hers from that moment on. Ally’s had it tough, working in a crappy restaurant and facing down rejection from those saying she isn’t pretty enough to be a star, talent be damned, but Jack sees her true potential. A wild night of bar fights and frozen peas is followed by a surprise concert where Jack invites her to sing a song (“Shallow”, one of a few likely Oscar contenders) of her own creation, something she has never done in front of people before. The rest is romantic and musical history.
The first half of A Star is Born is like pure electricity, the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga practically coursing through the screen’s edges. This is helped by the fact that the music early on is simply a thousand times better than it is later on, for reasons that become pretty obvious. That first duet between Jack and Ally hit me square in the chest, like the first time “Falling Slowly” was performed in Once, and it was impossible not to fall in love again with well-known story. But we also understand that these characters are on opposing trajectories. When the movie starts, Jack is already well on his way to rock bottom, while Ally’s meteoric rise happens largely by his side. When the demands of her solo career drive them apart somewhat, her transformation into just another dye-job pop starlet is quick, a little too quick. The soundtrack suffers during these portions to reflect her loss of creative voice, and we miss that energy she and Jack had together.
Cooper, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth, misses the mark a little bit with Ally’s path. Troubles with her blue collar, star-struck father (Andrew Dice Clay, almost unrecognizable and surprisingly good) are teased but only produce a couple of tender dramatic moments, of which the movie already has plenty. I appreciate that Cooper didn’t turn Ally into a meta commentary on Gaga’s wholly-created real life stage persona, which a lesser director would have done immediately. His focus is, perhaps understandably, mostly on Jack, a man with demons passed down to him like an old used guitar. Cooper’s performance as Jack is like nothing we’ve ever seen from him. His ocean blue eyes soaked through from exhaustion and drink, his face buried under a rugged beard, and yet it’s sensitivity that radiates from him most. Of the many versions of this character we’ve seen I find Cooper’s the most appealing and most relatable. We’re probably looking at a Best Actor contender here. If he can get nominated for American Sniper he damn well better for this. The supporting cast is superb all around, but special recognition to Sam Elliott, who probably would have been playing this role himself in another life. While his voice still rattles your chest that man can say more with his eyes than any actor alive. And don’t be surprised if Dave Chappelle has earned himself more dramatic opportunities for his brief, poignant turn as one of Jack’s oldest and most reliable friends.
The movie belongs to Gaga, though. She’s incredibly good, down-to-earth and authentic. Best Actress seems like a lock for her. Like Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston before her, Gaga is on her way to becoming more than just a singer who occasionally acts. A Star is Born feels like a transcendent moment in her career, and an evolution of Cooper’s. It couldn’t have happened at a better time or in a more appropriate film.