There is nothing glaringly new about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” aside from some fresh new faces and a weird affection for F-bombs. It’s a movie that has been done three previous times – in 1937, 1954, and 1976. Collectively those three earlier versions earned a total of 17 Oscar nominations. So Cooper picked a story with a history of Awards attention and by the sounds of it that trend is continuing. Many have already christened Cooper’s directorial debut the greatest thing since sliced bread.
First things first, Cooper shows himself to be a more than capable director. His pacing is good even at 135 minutes. He shows off an undeniably keen eye when shooting the musical numbers. He wastes no time putting together the central relationship and he smartly keeps his focus in the right places. Although you could question the decision to shift that focus in the final third of the movie.
It takes less than 15 minutes for the two lead characters to meet. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a bonafide star selling out venues across the country. Packed in with his years of stardom is his unshakable alcohol and drug abuse. After a big show and fresh out of booze, Jackson stumbles into a bar on drag night looking for a drink. Singing that evening is Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring yet insecure singer/songwriter. After one verse of “La Vie en rose” Jackson is hooked and as the title suggests a star is born.
It doesn’t take long to recognize the sharp chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. The movie’s first half is its strongest as their relationship begins to take form and Ally’s star begins its meteoric rise. Cooper and his co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters rightly make Gaga the highlight, giving her plenty of chances to show off some surprisingly good acting chops and of course a brilliant singing voice. There is nothing particularly mind-blowing about her handling of dialogue. Her real strength is in her ability to express whether it be specific looks or a pinpoint gesture. Cooper seems to know this. His camera will often sit on her, many times in closeup. It’s a smart move.
While Gaga is getting most of the attention Cooper’s performance is equally impressive, a bit mannered but more often instinctive. His disheveled look and gravelly voice speak to a character worn down by his personal excesses and painful past. Most of that past is revealed through scenes with his older brother/manager/chaperone Bobby. He’s played by the wonderfully rugged and always good Sam Elliott. And in the final act when Jack takes centerstage (for better or worse), Cooper’s performance maintains a steady authenticity. He’s also no slouch when it comes to singing.
And of course that leads to the musical numbers, a central component sure to sell a ton of soundtracks and dominate its category come awards season. Many are shot with such energy and emotion, none better than the signature song “Shallow”. Not only is it the film’s best sequence, it’s one of the year’s very best scenes. From the exciting buildup to the powerful heart-melting crescendo, it’s impossible to watch without a tear running down your cheek. Even the final song (a bit on the nose but sure to tug at the heartstrings of its target audience) is full of heart and leans on Gaga’s dynamic and soulful voice.
Ally connects with an agent (Rafi Gavron) who packages her and launches her career. At the same time Jack watches his career crumble under the weight of his personal demons. But their relationship remains front and center. Unfortunately there are a few too many gaps in Jack and Ally’s romance. There is also some unresolved and pretty significant business the end of the movie fails to address. I wouldn’t call it an essential plot piece but it deserved a resolution. Still, it’s hard to deny what Cooper and Gaga bring to the screen. And stellar supporting work from Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chappelle doesn’t hurt.
While the story of “A Star is Born” may be familiar, there are enough good choices from Bradley Cooper to make his version of this ‘oft told tale’ feel fresh. Perhaps the smartest decision is not making this telling about bitter jealousy. One star still launches while the other plummets, but here we see deeper and more personal poisons working against them. It’s the more personal angle which makes this imperfect but rousing crowd-pleaser stand out from its three predecessors.
VERDICT – 4 STARS