Toward the end of A Star is Born, one character describes a favorite bit of wisdom about music from Jackson Maine, one of the two central figures of the movie. Jackson – Jack to his friends – loves to say that there are only 12 notes between any octave. “Twelve notes and then the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All that the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
It might have been a strategic move to include this observation in the movie considering this is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. That’s four versions of A Star is Born – six if you include the 2013 Bollywood film Aashiqui 2, which is also based on the ’37 film, and a 1932 movie called What Price Hollywood?, which is essentially the same story. This version of A Star is Born is how Bradley Cooper sees the notes. He offers a fresh, energetic take. I was in from the very start, when we see Jack play one of his songs in front of a crowd of thousands of cheering fans.
This is Cooper’s directing debut, and he also stars in the movie as Jackson Maine. The character is a musician who is famous for playing roots rock, a style of rock-and-roll with a country twang. Jack hasn’t adapted well to being instantly recognizable. He finds a solution to his unease inside bottles of booze. After a show one night, his search for this temporary solution leads him to a drag bar. He watches a woman named Ally – Lady Gaga in her first feature film starring role – sing and is transported by her talent. Ally isn’t a drag performer, but the owner of the bar lets her sing there because she used to work as one of his waitresses. Jack introduces himself to Ally and the two share an instant connection.
The movie shouldn’t work as well as it does. The story is, as I explained above, very well-worn territory. Almost every beat comes as expected and right on time. The magic comes in the exceptional performances of the two leads and their attention to detail with the songs their characters sing.
Cooper loses himself in the role of Jackson Maine. His mannerisms and husky mumble are a mix between singer-songwriter turned actor Kris Kristofferson and Sam Elliott, who serves in a supporting role as Jack’s long-suffering older half-brother and manager, Bobby. In a sly wink to the audience, the two men have an argument about how Jack used Bobby’s persona to get famous. “You stole my voice,” Bobby accuses, meaning his artistic style. Cooper essentially stole Elliott’s gravelly intonation for his performance, but it works, since their characters are brothers.
Lady Gaga is primarily known as a singer, but she has some experience as an actress, most notably in one season of the anthology TV series American Horror Story. Her musical prowess is on full display in A Star is Born, but her acting skills are also impressive. There are a few fleeting moments from her that I didn’t quite buy; I was reminded that she was an actress playing Ally, instead of her being Ally. For most of her time on screen, though, Gaga gives a naturalistic, fully realized portrayal of her character. She was undoubtedly able to tap into her own experience in the music business to give authenticity to Ally’s rise from singing unknown to superstar.
There is power, too, in how Cooper stages the scenes between Jack and Ally. The movie has a loose, improvisational style, especially when it’s just the two of them. Cooper’s direction gives A Star is Born the feeling of being a live concert, as opposed to a studio album. His skills as an actor also make what could have been the picture’s most cliché moments believable. He totally sells Jack’s amazement the first time he sees Ally on stage.
Their getting-to-know-you moments, particularly in the bar’s dressing room after Ally sings, and in the parking lot of a grocery store, where Ally writes a song for Jack on the spot, are refreshing in their simplicity. Cooper builds the mystique around his character in a quieter moment when one of the drag performers asks Jack to play a song after closing time. This is the girl-falls-for-the-boy moment, as Ally looks on from the shadows. It’s a moment we’ve seen hundreds of times in the movies, but these two actors are so charismatic, I couldn’t help but be swept away by them. The same is true for Ally’s big moment, when Jack convinces her to overcome her fears and sing with him in front of a huge crowd.
While Cooper and Gaga make A Star is Born compelling viewing, there is an issue with the movie’s pacing. The story of Jack discovering Ally, their love story, and his jealousy as her career eclipses his own is a whirlwind. Maybe because Cooper and his cowriters, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, assumed their audiences would be familiar with the structure of the story, their move from one beat to the next is disjointed. There is some connective tissue missing between the big moments that make up A Star is Born.
As hackneyed as they can be, and as hesitant as I am to suggest it, a few more montages showing the lovers’ emotional progression might have served to close some of the gaps. The events of the movie happen in a bubble. Our perspective is always so closely tied to Jack and Ally that I didn’t always have a clear idea about how much time had passed in Ally’s rise to stardom.
That one misstep aside, first time director Bradley Cooper has taken familiar notes and rearranged them into a song I can believe I’m hearing for the first time. Lady Gaga’s formidable talent as both a singer and an actress complement Cooper’s turn in front of the camera to make this version of A Star is Born an effervescent experience.
Why it got 4 stars:
- In lesser hands, this latest version of A Star is Born could have been standard boilerplate melodrama. Cooper and Gaga elevate it to a moving story with a fantastic soundtrack.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I can’t overemphasize Bradley Cooper’s dedication to his part. From the very first frame, I totally believed him as a musician. He spent almost a year training his voice for the part.
- The cinematography by director of photography Matthew Libatique, who has shot almost all of Darren Aronofsky’s films, is gorgeous.
- The first act of the movie is pure wish fulfillment as we watch Ally’s rise to stardom.
- Cooper’s creative team paid special attention to the sound design, and it pays off. Every song on the soundtrack thrums with energy during the movie.
- Cooper has an Oscar-bait scene near the end of A Star is Born, and it’s incredibly effective. The pain that Jack is going through comes through in Cooper’s performance.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Saw this one on a DVD screener at home. I regret not seeing it on the big screen, though. As good as the sound is in my home theater screening room, I’m sure the songs would have had even more kick in a proper movie theater.