Review: “A Star is Born” (2018)

4 out of 5 stars.

Hollywood loves to talk about itself.  Maybe that’s why the story of the rise and fall of celebrity in “A Star is Born” is one of the most remade films in Hollywood history.  The first version, from 1937 (which was in turn inspired by the 1932 film “What Price Hollywood?”), as well as the 1954 remake, centered around the film industry.  A subsequent remake in 1976 starred Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand and moved the setting to the music industry, and it is this version that the newest take on the story, which is directed by and starring Bradley Cooper alongside Lady Gaga, most heavily draws from.  The bad news is that the 1976 “A Star is Born” is a pretty awful movie.  The good news is that this new version is great, a prime example of how a tighter screenplay and good direction can change how a story is told.

In the film, Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous musician who has a chance encounter with struggling singer Ally (Gaga).  Jackson is an alcoholic and a drug addict, and is immediately drawn to Ally, who has the pure love and talent for singing and songwriting that Jackson has been struggling to recapture himself.  As they fall in love, Jackson helps launch Ally’s career by bringing her on tour with him.  But as her fame rises, he increasingly struggles with his own fading star and his lack of self-worth.

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Jackson (Cooper) writes a song for Ally (Gaga)

As with the previous versions of “A Star is Born,” the relationship between the two leads can make or break the movie.  These are two characters who are really in love, who keep it together even when something seemingly unforgivable happens, and it shows in Cooper and Gaga’s performances.  You wouldn’t think that this is Cooper’s directorial debut, or Gaga’s first starring role in a feature film, but it is.  Cooper movingly portrays Jackson’s downward spiral in one of the best—maybe the best—performances in his career to date.  Gaga, meanwhile, comes off as very natural as Ally.  Ally can be headstrong, particularly when defending others, but she’s vulnerable when it comes to her music, and it’s by letting Jackson strip away that vulnerability that brings them closer together.  In many ways she’s the perfect person to follow-up Streisand—they both have strong voices and unconventional beauty, both traits that are discussed in the film—but she also makes this role entirely her own.  Together, Cooper and Gaga have wonderful chemistry—regardless of the tone of the scene they are playing, when they are in a scene together, they are electrifying.

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Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performs with Ally (Lady Gaga)

The first half of the film, which simply deals with Jackson and Ally first meeting and falling in love, is stronger than the second half, which deals with the more complex issues of fame, relationship drama, and addiction.  Cooper, who also co-wrote the screenplay, could have spent more time on some of the commentary on the music industry.  One of the great things about “A Star is Born” is that when you strip away everything else, the simple love story between two people can be moved to any time or place, but while we get a sense of the industry forcing Ally to perform a way that may be popular but doesn’t reflect her true self, that subplot seems to drop off without much resolution.  But despite any flaws, the resulting film isn’t a grand epic about Hollywood but a quiet love story that remains focused on its two leads.  Often, the move literally focuses on them; Cooper keeps many of Ally and Jackson’s scenes together in close-up, cutting back and forth between their faces, even in the scenes where they are performing in front of huge stadium crowds.  The film stays on them, giving us just a hint of the mayhem that accompanies celebrity.  One of the highlights of the film is when Jackson first sees Ally.  She’s singing “La Vie en Rose” in a drag show at a crowded bar, but as she meanders through the crowd, Cooper makes sure she and Jackson stand out amidst all the other people.  Cooper also does a solid job in both his script and direction in making sure that the film doesn’t stray too far into melodrama, which is something this story can easily do.  The ending is handled especially well, with Cooper feeding the audience just enough information, and making it more poignant in the process.

Outside of its leads, “A Star is Born” also hosts multiple great supporting players, including Anthony Ramos as Ally’s best friend Ramon, Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother and manager Bobby, Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s old friend George, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo, and Rafi Gavron as Rez, Ally’s producer.  The soundtrack also features all new original songs across a several genres and by a variety of artists, including a lot of country contributions from Lukas Nelson (son of Willie).  Like most soundtracks, some of the songs are more memorable than others, but “Shallow”—the powerful duet between Cooper and Gaga that marks the first collaboration between Ally and Jackson—and “I’ll Never Love Again”—the ballad that Gaga belts out in the film’s final moments—are sure to be hits.

“A Star is Born” wavers between heart-breaking and uplifting in the best way possible, as Jackson lifts Ally to fulfill her dreams, even at the expense of his own.  It’s a movie that, like countless remakes before, could have gone very wrong, or at the very least, been immediately forgettable.  But with Cooper emerging not only as a talented actor but a gifted director and Gaga delivering a riveting performance, this is a version of this story that everyone, not just Hollywood, will be talking about.

Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated R.

 

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