A Star is Born is directed by Bradley Cooper. The film stars Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, and Rafi Gavron. It's the fourth film version of the story, following earlier movies from 1937, 1954, and 1976.
Jackson Maine is an established singer/guitarist who regularly tours the world, performing his songs to arenas, though he suffers from a troubled past and a dependence on drugs and alcohol. A chance encounter in a bar introduces him to Ally, an up-and-coming singer who works a day job in a restaurant and lives with her father. The two strike up a friendship and go out on the road together, with friendship becoming something more, and Ally’s own reputation skyrocketing. Will the twosome continue to live the good life at the top of the charts, or will Jackson’s internal struggles and closeted jealousy of his companion lead to his downfall?
I’ll be the first to admit this wasn’t exactly a movie I was jumping with joy to see. There are far too many remakes of older films in the world, most of which are disastrous and do nothing to improve on their earlier source material. Likewise, there are too many “star vehicles” which throw musicians into films in an effort to diversify their career, only to find out in many cases they simply “can’t act,” and the movie feels like a cheap cash-in. Further complicating things is the fact that it’s the directorial debut for Bradley Cooper, a fantastic actor but someone who’d not previously sat in the director’s chair. With these things coming together in a single film, surely the fourth film version of A Star is Born had all the pieces in place to bomb and fail critically and commercially.
Boy, was I wrong!
The film not only goes against all these trends as an exception to nearly every rule; it’s one of the best movies of 2018. Mr. Cooper proves he can direct. Ms. Gaga proves she’s more than just a pop star. The two have a definite chemistry, and the overall story is beautifully supported by its supporting cast. Despite a running time of over two hours, the film never feels like it’s dragging . A great soundtrack and musical score only add to the overall greatness of the end result. I have no doubt that come Oscar season, this film’s getting some serious (and much deserved!) attention.
It’s absolutely criminal that a whole generation of moviegoers only knows Bradley Cooper for being the voice of Rocket Raccoon in the Marvel Comics movies. The archetype of the troubled musician is nothing new in the world of cinema, and it’s tough to pull it off without it seeming like a cliche or parody. Fortunately, Cooper truly brings this character to life and has chemistry with all his co-stars, including Gaga. He’s got a sense of humor but equally strong inner demons. It doesn’t take long into the film to know this guy, despite his good heart, will be facing a turbulent path of self-destruction and loathing.
Who truly steals the show, however, is Lady Gaga. When I heard her character was a down-to-earth everyday working-class girl with a dream, I had my doubts as to whether she could pull of the part, as an “everyday girl” is the last thing the real Gaga is (hell, she's worn dresses made out of meat!) Fortunately, the eccentric pop star proves herself to be a superb actress. She brings both a vulnerability and an innocence to this role which defines her character. Seeing her journey and transformation throughout the movie is a delight, and it never feels like the done-to-death "rags to riches" stories we've seen so many times. If she can bring a character the three-dimensional treatment like this, in all honesty, I’ll never doubt her abilities as an actress again! Here’s hoping we see her on the big screen in the future.
The supporting cast fills their own roles perfectly. Highlights include Sam Elliott as Jackson’s brother/manager figure with whom he clearly has a turbulent history yet the two share a mutual respect of sorts, and an almost unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, a former Sinatra-esque crooner turned limo driver. These characters are in the movie just the right amount, enhancing the performances from Cooper and Gaga, rather than stealing their thunder. We also get Dave Chappelle as an old friend of Jackson who’s disappointingly underused, but given the film’s lengthy running time and already very full narrative, his smaller role is somewhat understandable and can be forgiven. Hopefully home video releases will have a few deleted scenes with his character.
The film earns its R rating by not shying away from the ugliness of life. The relationship and chemistry between Cooper and Gaga on screen is undeniable, and when they face the inevitable obstacles and challenges, we as an audience actually give a damn. It’s never an overly violent film, but it’s certainly a dramatic one, and the turbulence isn’t to be taken lightly, as Cooper’s character does have his share of vices and inner turmoil. When the movie reaches its conclusion, we’re in so different a place than where we began, and the journey is at times a tear-jerker. Again, I praise Cooper’s direction for keeping the film tightly paced with more-than-adequate character development despite running for over two hours. This is a challenge even for the most experienced director, so to see Mr. Cooper pull it off during his first time in the director’s chair is truly remarkable. Just as I want to see Gaga acting in more films after seeing her performance here, I want Cooper on both sides of the camera in the future more often!
Despite its dramatic and tear-jerking nature, the movie doesn’t shy away from lighter and more humorous scenes. Much of this is helped by the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga, who both truly understand the characters they’re playing inside and out. Fortunately, the humor never reaches a campy level, and everything stays grounded.
The settings of the film go everywhere from suburban houses and seedy drag bars to giant concert stages, luxury hotels, and isolated homes in the woods. Regardless of what the scene requires, the whole thing looks phenomenal. Emotionally and visually, A Star is Born is a work of art.
One major factor a film like this one needs to be successful is a strong soundtrack. Lady Gaga is certainly one of the most popular and talented pop stars of her generation, but I also feared the soundtrack may simply be a retread of her own albums. Fortunately, once more, my fears were unfounded. The soundtrack is surprisingly diverse, with Cooper serving up some Southern/country rock-style tunes from his character’s career, duets between the two, and even some solo cuts from Gaga’s character after her own career launches. The film also includes a variety of incidental music, ranging from Allman Brothers to Beastie Boys. It’s a movie which doesn’t disappoint on the music end!
I had the luxury of attending a screening at the Dolby Theater in AMC Town Square, showing the film on a large curved screen with a larger-than-normal speaker concentration. It’s not the first movie I’ve seen in a Dolby Theater, but for the concert/music sequences, the extra “punch” from the theater’s acoustics served the film well. It’s a great film you’re sure to enjoy regardless of where you see it, though this is one of the few times theater “gimmicks” actually really benefited the end product.
I could nitpick a few minor issues I have with the movie (I definitely wanted more Dave Chappelle), but I won’t deny the good far outweighs the bad. A Star is Born is one of the best films of the year thanks to superb casting, chemistry, music, drama, and everything in between. It doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life, but still finds time for charming, heartwarming moments of humor and drama alike. Absolute highest recommendations.
Rating: Four stars out of four.
DISCLAIMER: Images in this review are the property of their respective copyright holders, including Warner Bros. Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Joint Effort, Gerber Pictures, and Live Nation Entertainment. For promotional use only. All rights reserved.