While a lot of films have amazed me over the years it takes a special movie and story to leave me sitting as the credits role taking a moment to fully absorb what I just watched. That was my reaction last night after I was privileged to view the local premier showing of “A Star is Born”, the fourth incarnation of a classic story of two artists falling in love and how fame and fortune impacts their love life. There’s been a lot of buzz around this movie. It’s Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, it’s a modern take on a classic that was remade twice already and now it’s received early Oscar buzz as awards season approaches. I may have already given away my thoughts on the film in this intro alone but I have a review to do and besides the question still remains: does “A Star is Born” live up to the hype? Let’s take a look. This in my review of “A Star is Born”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“A Star is Born” is the third remake of a classic tragic love story that first premiered on the big screen in the 1930s. In this version Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an established county music star who is addicted to drugs and alcohol due to a rocky childhood. One night Maine comes across a young singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) and not only falls for her but also falls for her voice. Maine invites Ally for a night on the town where he convinces her to explore a singing career eventually leading him to bring her on stage to sing one of her songs. The two quickly fall in love while Ally’s career takes off thanks to her performance going viral. Meanwhile Maine’s career starts to falter. As Ally’s fame grows she compromises her artistic integrity which further impacts Maine and drives him deeper into his addiction. Eventually both Ally and Jackson must come to grips with the pressures of fame and personal demons that threaten to tear them apart.
So obviously this movie revolves around two performances specifically, Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally, and both are incredible. The chemistry between these on-screen lovers is magnetic and tremendously believable. For a story this deep and layered we needed to see performances that captured the personalities of these characters and their bond and we get that in droves. Cooper and Gaga work off each other well and feel like true best friends every time they’re on screen which, in turn, helps the viewers invest in their relationship and well being. I’ve seen a lot of love stories in my day and a lot of on screen couples but rarely do I see a pair that fit as perfectly together as these two do. It truly feels like these actors known each other inside and out and it makes for a believable romance that draws you in from start to finish. I’ll delve more into this relationship later on but for now let’s look at each actor individually.
Bradley Cooper not only directs but stars as an aged and successful musician who discovers a new talent, falls in love with that new talent and then has to deal with his inner demons as a result. I loved Cooper in this role. He put a lot of work into it even working with Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Wilson, whose band serves as the backing band for Jackson Maine, to learn how to be a convincing guitarist. His drawl is spot on, his personality fits the image and he even brings forth a pretty intense take on the effects of alcohol and drug abuse on an individual especially after years of usage. Cooper clearly wanted to do this right and he succeeds giving us a vulnerable but passionate man who is relatable, flawed and damaged without going too far over the edge. We see a lot of different angles of Jackson Maine including an emotional breakdown, passionate and sincere romantic swooning and especially his passion for music. Combine these characteristics with Cooper’s unexpectedly convincing and raw vocal performances that are spot on with every take and you have one of Cooper’s best roles to date.
Lady Gaga feels much less surprising as the talented singer Ally who Jackson Maine takes under his wing and falls in love with. Obviously we are all familiar with Gaga’s musical talent and her character doesn’t feel like much of a stretch because Gaga is more familiar with how the music industry works. However, this doesn’t make her performance bad in any way. Rather it makes Gaga’s Ally that much more believable. Gaga could have totally phoned in her performance and probably would have still been convincing but she doesn’t. She feels passionate, raw and honest in her transformation from a nobody songstress to a superstar. In a lot of ways I actually felt like we were seeing Lady Gaga embrace her own story in this film and I found that to be incredibly awesome. Even putting the musical aspect of this movie aside Gaga’s Ally is downright adorable. She’s feels like a very real person who takes chances but is never ignorant of the potential consequences. She just goes with the flow always knowing that she may have to take a step back eventually which in turn always gives her character this cautious personality that remains throughout the film. Time and time again, whether it’s with Maine or her manager or even her father Ally always remains on edge which I thought was a nice touch. Ally could have easily been a generic diva, but she’s not. She feels like a honest to God real person trying to juggle fame, image and love showing once again how incredibly talented Gaga is both behind the mic and in front of the camera.
God, there was so much I loved about this movie I don’t know where to start. I guess the obvious place would be the soundtrack seeing as this is a musical of sorts. A variety of great writers took part in producing the soundtrack with Cooper and Gaga helping pen numerous songs including the movie’s main single “Shallow”. The entire soundtrack is awesome and flows from tune to tune like a story in and of itself. Each song is perfectly placed within the narrative to capture a moment in time and they never feel out of place even when repeated. There’s a natural cohesion and relationship between the plot and the songs that not only shows the progression of the story, but of the progression of characters as artists as well. Aside from “Shallow” some of my favorite tunes were “Maybe It’s Time”, “Look What I Found” and “I’ll Never Love Again” but I felt the soundtrack as a whole was truly memorable. I immediately wanted to go out and buy the hard cop to listen to these tunes over and over again. They resonate beyond the limits of the film and help capture the passion these characters and the people playing them have for the art of music.
That’s a great way to segue into one of my favorite aspects of this film and that’s its focus on the characters’ love for the art. Previous incarnations of this story have tackled the music world before but with this version it seems not only more relevant, but more timeless as well. Jackson Maine is an aging musician whose glory days have gone by while Ally is a newer artist who compromises her creativity and image to sell herself as a product. As an aspiring musician myself I could totally relate to both of these perspectives as I watched the music I grew up with in the 90s become compromised by trying to create a product more than saying something important. That’s a significant running theme in this movie, that music is not just entertainment but also an art and while I do wish the film would have delved a little but more into that idea we do get to see both Jackson Maine and Ally present their intense love for music as an art form. Watching their initial meeting and their bonding over a new song that Ally has been writing felt completely real. Having been in this position myself before I can tell you from experience this is how people really bond over this stuff. When two musicians or singers get together and just lose themselves in their talent and passion it creates this incredible chemistry and I feel “A Star is Born” captures that passion brilliantly throughout the entire film.
Aside from the music though I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the chances that Cooper and fellow writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters took with modernizing “A Star is Born” for today’s audience. I loved how the story starts off focusing on Ally’s struggle and her miserable life but as she starts to find success Jackson Maine becomes more miserable and the focus shifts to him, showing us how being famous can be both a blessing and a curse. In addition many signature aspects of the previous movies have been changed but the changes feel warranted and add to the story in a new way rather than compromising it. There’s some truly inspired writing in this film with characters that feel fleshed out and a love story that embraces certain clichés while bucking others, adding its own elements to a tale told many times before. Cooper directs this film very competently for a first time filmmaker even if he still has a bit of growing left to do, but more on that later. There are extremely powerful emotional moments, there are effective moments of levity, and there are moments that are fun and exciting. I felt like I was exploring life through the eyes of these characters. To put it bluntly “A Star is Born” is the full package bringing a little bit of everything to the table.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Even a great film is not without its issues. One of the biggest problems people will probably point out about “A Star is Born” is that it’s got several instances of choppy editing that awkwardly break the flow of the movie. You can chalk this up to Cooper being a first time director but there are quite a few instances where cuts from one scene to another are a bit abrupt. There are actually a few small moments where this approach works, but for the most part is makes for some jarring transitions. One specific moment early on that caught my attention was when Cooper’s Jackson Maine is talking with his brother Bobby (played by Sam Elliott) and for seemingly no reason at all the camera goes from an over the shoulder shot to a shot from the back of the stage and then suddenly back to the over the shoulder angle and turns into a tracking shot. There was no rhyme or reason behind it at all when a tracking shot would have both been more visually pleasing and made more sense for such a tense conversation. We see these kinds of things a lot in this movie and it’s not just limited to the editing either. There are a few (very few but a few) scenes where the story rushes through important moments giving us little time to invest in that particular part of these characters’ lives whereas the rest of the movie takes its time. These are small issues that don’t detract from the film as much as they probably should, but they do show that Cooper still has to work on and could use a little more polish and style in his direction in the future.
I think the only other major gripe I have with the movie is I felt like the story could have taken certain aspects much farther, mainly its examination of the music industry. The movie starts off looking like it’s going to hand out some great social commentary on the state of the industry today but it never really sees that through. As the story progresses the focus is put more on the personal lives of these two musicians and any commentary on the music industry kind of takes a back seat to the love story by the third act. It’s a little disappointing because there are some cool opportunities that could have been utilized better to tackle some unfortunate realities of the industry today, especially the compromising of image and creativity. There’s one moment where Jackson Maine watches Ally perform a song and is clearly distraught by what he hears. He later approaches her about it but it only makes up one short scene that delves more into their relationship struggles than Ally being a sellout and then the issue is barely ever touched on again. I would have LOVED to see this explored more, maybe even better worked in to why these lovers are growing apart. Does her change of music and style also affect his love for her because she’s not the woman he original discovered? We never really find out why this hurts Maine as much as it does. In short “A Star is Born” had an opportunity to shed some light on the issues facing the music industry while also balancing its love story but it settles for one while the other is forsaken. “A Star is Born” is a fantastic movie, but I think this improvement could have made it even better.
“A Star is Born” is an incredible film in my humble opinion. Yes it has its share of minor flaws as most films do, but for a debut directorial effort from Bradley Cooper and a remake of a classic done several times before this film not only does justice to a legacy but lives up to the hype surrounding it. The performances are spectacular, the story is engaging and mesmerizing, the music is memorable and well written and to top it off this modernization of a legendary love story in Hollywood feels truly inspired. A lot of times a remake feels unnecessary, messy or inferior. “A Star is Born” is none of those things. It could have used a bit more polish but the overall product is pleasing and enjoyable and it builds on the legacy of its story rather than trying to mimic what has succeeded in the past. It’s one of the best remakes I’ve seen in a long time. It feels appropriate and fresh and charts its own path with its own identity that demands respect. “A Star is Born” is one of my favorite movies of 2018 so far and I can’t wait to watch it again. It had me engaged and interested from the first shot to the last and even had me thinking about it well after I left the theater. I just truly enjoyed every minute of it.