A Star Is Born, 2018.
Directed by Bradley Cooper.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chapelle, Anthony Ramos and Michael Harney.
Legendary rock star, Jackson Maine, is facing the demise of his career because of drink and drugs. But when he discovers talented singer/songwriter Ally and falls in love, life starts to improve: the two fall in love, get married and she becomes a regular feature of his stage act. When she starts to eclipse him, winning both acclaim and awards, he begins to decline again, believing that he’s holding her back.
Welcome to the fourth incarnation of a classic story that first appeared on screen in the 1930s. The original A Star Is Born dates back to 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Perhaps the most celebrated version was in 1954, with Judy Garland (who lost out to Grace Kelly for the Best Actress Oscar in one of the Academy’s biggest upsets) and James Mason, followed in 1976 by Barbra Streisand’s vanity project, which co-starred Kris Kristofferson. This latest interpretation was originally to be directed by Clint Eastwood with Beyonce in the female lead. Instead, we have Bradley Cooper both in the director’s chair and playing the male lead, alongside Lady Gaga. And we can thank our lucky stars.
The story is so well known that it doesn’t need repeating. Of the many challenges facing first time director Cooper, the biggie was to bring something fresh and contemporary to the screen, while still respecting the film’s history. And then there was the fading rock star role, which was no walk in the park either, both in terms of its acting and musical demands. Every single one of those boxes, and a few more, all get large ticks. It’s a seriously impressive debut, one that looks like he’s been behind the camera for his entire career and directing himself for most of it as well. The crowd scenes are well orchestrated, the concerts come complete with goosebumps of pure pleasure and the handheld camerawork gives the sequences a vital immediacy. Yet he’s just as good at creating the smaller scale intimacy between Jack and Ally.
He also gets knock-out performances from his cast, himself included. When you first hear his Jackson Maine (the same surname as in the first two versions, so a respectful nod to the past), you can’t help but wonder why he sounds like Sam Elliott. The reason soon becomes apparent and the owner of the voice from the depths of his boots is on cracking form. But he rarely puts a cowboy boot out of place anyway. Cooper’s Jackson has to cope with addictions to drink and drugs, tinnitus, depression and, ultimately, guilt. Yet, with all that to get his teeth into, the most convincing aspect is the tangibly believable chemistry between him and Lady Gaga as Ally. It’s one of his most satisfyingly complex performances.
So many plaudits seem to have been thrown in her direction it’s only fair that Cooper gets his fair share – he’s earned them – but Gaga is a real eye opener. We all knew that she could sing, but as a couple in love they convince completely and as an assertive, passionate woman who, despite her talent, lacks self-confidence, she really is on fire. Nobody playing this role has ever won the Oscar, not even Judy Garland, and whether Gaga will at last bring home the golden statuette is difficult to predict at the moment, but for now she has to be a frontrunner, at the very least. And if “Shallow” doesn’t get a nod for Best Original Song, if not win, it’ll be the biggest Oscar gaffe since …… well, you know when.
The film’s contemporary resonances come from its portrayal of Jackson’s many problems. Instead of being simply a hopeless drunk, there’s a concerted effort to get closer to the issues of drink, drugs and mental health, giving it some depth and understanding. And, for those who’ve seen the previous versions, yes, it does re-create that most memorable of scenes at the award ceremony, the moment of Ally’s triumph. Jackson does something that mortifies both him and his wife, one that puts the reality of their marriage and his difficulties in particular in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. But Cooper delivers this in his own way. No James Mason style slap for him.
The powerful emotions at work in A Star Is Born will floor you. It’s impossible not to engage with it, so much so that it leaves you feeling subdued afterwards, bereft even: despite an uplifting note at the end, it’s still a tragic story, however familiar it may be. As for its leading lady, we always knew Lady Gaga was a star as a singer. Now An Actor Is Born.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.