At a key moment in A Star Is Born, Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott) says that “music is essentially 12 notes between any octave.” He explains that music is a cycle of repetition every musician, every storyteller, utilizes over and over, using their own personal vision and voice to make it unique. Considering that the line is spoken in a film that’s been remade four times in the last hundred years speaks volumes about what those notes can do. Put differently, each rendition of A Star Is Born is a unique stamp of the period in which it’s made, the tale becoming more and more modern with each telling. The basic premise remains: An on-his-way-out male meets an up-and-coming woman and they fall in love, some of the details change: actors become singers, but the resonance never dwindles. Making his mark on this prestigious film while sitting in the director’s chair for the first time is Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), who stars alongside musical phenom Lady Gaga (American Horror Story: Hotel), both offering a unique modern vision on a timeless tale.
World-famous musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) copes with his increasing deafness through drugs and drinking, both habits made worse by an existential sense of loneliness despite being adored by millions. One night, by chance, Jack discovers Ally (Gaga) singing in a club and he’s immediately entranced by her voice and, by night’s end, utterly smitten with her. Seeing something kindred in their talent, they form a near immediate bond, each pushing the other to bring themselves up instead of letting the world tear them down. As Ally’s success increases, however, Jack’s demons grow ever louder, forcing the couple to examine what matters most: the music or the fame.
Cooper’s displayed time and again what a chameleon he is by jumping from genre to genre with ease and Star is no exception. This time, as strong as his performance is – and it is wonderful – it’s his direction that will leave your mouth agape. Demonstrating a patience and skill beyond that of a first-timer, Cooper manages to make the whole of Star in all of its grandeur feel like a small, intimate tale of two lovers. Cooper elects mid-range, close-ups, and extreme close-ups, forcing the audience to examine every inch of the frame as the actors perform. It’s in the way Ally first sees Jack perform with the camera placing Gaga outside of the frame and taking on her POV, looking through a ribbon curtain with Cooper in front, standing on a stage. She may have heard his music, but Ally gets the chance to experience Jack in the same way he experienced her: a voice first with an obstructed view of the form. When the camera cuts back to Ally’s face, it’s an extreme close-up and, like her, we are unable to look away. This may be the key to Cooper’s approach and why it’s as powerful as it is, enabling the emotionality of Star to reverberate through the audience long after the film finishes. The reverb is not from the natural, earthy feel cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Mother!) brings to moments intimate or cold, nor from the way scribes Eric Rother, Will Fetters, and Cooper adapted the story for today’s audiences.
If the direction is one end of a weapon, then the music is the other. It’s likely that most will have become familiar with first single “Shallow” before seeing the film. A duet between Jack and Ally, it does more than serve as Ally taking that first step into the spotlight, a step constant rejection made her terrified to take. It’s a symbol of the bond between these two characters. Though it was a song she’d been working on before meeting him, she’s inspired to craft a refrain that would blend into it perfectly, a refrain born out of Jack’s bravado façade. He takes what she creates and builds the music around it to uplift it and then gives her a chance for her voice to be heard. He doesn’t force. He doesn’t plead. He merely offers her a chance and beams with pride and admiration as she boldly takes the stage. All of the songs in Star are original works written by Cooper and Gaga, in partnership with other artists including Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, and Mark Ronson. Every song within Star feel emotionally significant to the portrayal of these characters and that’s a not-so-insignificant achievement considering the incarnations of the main roles this time around live in the music industry.
When talk of another A Star Is Born remake began to swirl, the obvious comparisons to previous versions – especially the 1976 Frank Pierson-directed version featuring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand – were made. Declarations abounded decrying the need for a new take on the beloved story, forgetting the numerous times it had been made already. The announcement of Cooper’s cast – himself, Gaga, and Elliott – certainly softened the reaction, but the performances from the whole of the cast will stun. Impressively, the script doesn’t spend much time setting up relationships between many of the characters, choosing subtext and conversation to reveal connections and intent, requiring all of those involved bring their absolute A-game. Cooper as Jack is as charismatic as audiences expect a famous rock star to be, yet Cooper’s small gestures, subtle looks, or inflections add enormous weight to every scene. If anyone were going to follow in the footsteps of Judy Garland and Streisand, Gaga undeniable fits the bill. Whatever you might think of her musical career, there is no Ally without her. Considering how much Ally’s story seems an echo of Gaga’s own, there’s no surprise at how authentic the entirety of her portrayal feels. Rounding out the cast are Elliott (The Hero), Dave Chappelle (Dave Chappelle: Equanimity), Anthony Ramos (Monsters and Men), Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine), and Rafi Gavron (Snitch), who are each given opportunities in moments small and large to make their characters feel real, never giving way to falsehood in any capacity. Of the performers, it seems safe to assume that Cooper, Gaga, and Elliott are going to end up nominees come the 90th Academy Awards.
The only real issue with A Star Is Born is the awareness of length the further into the film the audience goes. The roller coaster of Jack and Ally is filled with so many peaks and valleys that it’s easy to become removed from the experience as an awareness of just how long you’ve been in the theater starts to wash over you. This isn’t to suggest that Star is too long or should be cut in any way, because as much as the audience may become aware of how long the film is, it never drags, not for a moment. There’s never a single unnecessary moment or conversation. In fact, it’s the patience Cooper displays moving from moment to moment, action to reaction, that gives the ending of Star such powerful weight. And it will weigh on you the same way it weighs on the characters. That’s a powerful testament to both Cooper’s treatment of the material as it is the performances, solidifying A Star Is Born as not only a strong film, but one of the best films of 2018.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.