There’s a point near the end of ‘A Star is Born’ where Sam Elliott’s character explains in his deep baritone voice that life is just “the same song told over and over again”. That bit of sage cowboy wisdom rings especially true for this film. This adaptation of ‘A Star is Born’ is the 4th time this story has been told in the history of cinema. It’s easy to understand why. The narrative is theatrical, bordering on melodramatic. It gives the stars a chance to prove they can both sing and act. They get to show both their talents for romantic as well as deeply dramatic moments. In the parlance of our times, ‘A Star is Born’ is one of the truest examples of “Oscar Bait”.
At the end of Elliot’s speech he takes what has been a largely pessimistic view on music, storytelling and art in general; and he turns is on its head. He says what matters most is how you live that life. How you incorporate your voice to tell your story.
This may feel like director and star Bradley Cooper is making a very obvious case for his film. However, I agree with the point he’s trying to make. We have all seen movies about artists and their demons. You may have even seen another version of ‘A Star is Born’. What you haven’t seen though is the way Jackson Maine (Cooper) looks at Ally (Lady Gaga) when she composes a ballad. You don’t know how it feels to watch Lady Gaga take an already great performance and elevate it even higher when she sings. It’s these reasons that make ‘A Star is Born’ one of the year’s best films.
The film starts as the story of Cooper’s Character. He doesn’t know it yet, but his career will soon be in decline. This is largely due to his rock ‘n roll life of hard drinking and the fickle nature of popular taste. After a concert and in need of a drink, He finds himself in a burlesque drag bar. This may not seem like the place you’d expect to find a country singer who looks like Father John Misty. However, he makes it clear that as long as they have liquor this is his kind of place.
The bar does seem like somewhere you’d expect to find Lady Gaga’s Ally. This is probably due the outside knowledge that the singer turned actor started her career in similar bars. She performs a cover of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ and her singing captivates and moves Cooper to tears. He’s instantly infatuated and it’s easy to understand why. Every Gaga musical performance in the film is so authentic and true, it almost impossible to not get swept up in them. A late night of drinking, bar fights & iced peas later, Jackson hears Ally compose and sing an original song for the first time. In this moment she becomes a kind of protégé/muse in his eyes. She has a true voice and a story to tell. Those are the things that Jackson Maine values above all else.
Through the whirlwind of their romance, Ally’s meteoric rise to fame and Jackson’s addiction getting the better of him, we meet a bevy of supporting characters. All of them are excellent. The previously mentioned Sam Elliott is the biggest standout of the film. Maybe it’s because i’ve watched ‘The Big Lebowski’ more times than I care to admit; but I have trained myself to take any little bit of Elliott dialogue and treat it as the gospel truth.
Andrew Dice Clay plays Lady Gaga’s recovering alcoholic father. His performance could easily border on a stereotype of ”loud Italian dad” for some. Although I felt casting Clay, who’s transition to respectable character seems to be complete, allowed the blustering performance to come across as honest and real. Dave Chappelle is also in ‘A Star is Born’ as Cooper’s childhood best friend. He’s good when he’s in the movie, but he’s sadly not on screen for long.
The reason for feeling most of the supporting characters don’t have enough time in the film is due to the editing. The film is great and doesn’t feel overly stitched together. But it seems pretty likely that Cooper at one point had a much longer version of the film. A lot of scenes seem to almost start in the middle of conversation. Also, if you’re looking for plot inconsistencies; you won’t have to look hard. The fact that ‘A Star is Born’ is so engrossing speaks to Cooper’s talents behind the camera as well as in front of it. You can let the little narrative problems bug you. You can decide to push back against the heightened emotion. Or you can give yourself over to it and let yourself be transfixed by the type of story we just don’t see anymore.
As great as all the supporting performances are, a film like this lives and dies on the strength of its two lead actors though. Thankfully ‘A Star is Born’ delivers every time Cooper and Gaga share the screen. They have undeniable chemistry and perfectly complement each other’s expertise. Cooper carries the majority of the dramatic weight. Lady Gaga sings like only she can, revealing that it’s her world and we’re all just living in it. This makes absolute sense in the narrative. They’re both blissfully in love with one another, but they’re experiencing very different worlds. Ally is encountering fame for the first time and Gaga perfectly portrays her elation at every new peak her career hits. Maine is watching his once great fame slip through his fingers and his fear and anger about his future leads to some of the tensest scenes in film.
That anguish of Cooper is the strongest aspect of the film to me. He knows he is fading and he sees Lady Gaga as a kind of savior and redemption for him. She’s someone that can inspire him again and make him anew. However Jackson’s own faults, insecurities & lies never seem to allow Ally to fully rescue him in the way he wants. He’s looking for her to literally be his own personal Jesus. But anytime she doesn’t perfectly confirm to his own warped idea of what artistic honesty is, he lashes out.
The film will not be for everyone. One can easily imagine the inevitable backlash it will face over the next few months. However, I feel melodrama has value if it reaches your emotions in an earned and honest way. ‘A Star is Born’ definitely earns every theatrical set-piece it has. It’s two leads are being big, theatrical archetypes. They show while me may be playing the same song again, Bradley Cooper still had a worthy story to tell.