The ‘A Star is Born’ story has been told and retold twice since the original was released in 1937, with subsequent retellings following in 1954 with Judy Garland and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand as the titular star; three takes on the rags-to-riches story that hits home for all aspiring musicians. The fact that the story has remained timeless for over eight decades goes to show how inspiringly effective the tale is for audiences so it comes as no surprise for the story to be told once more in 2018. What is surprising, however, is that directorial debutant Bradley Cooper has taken the reins on a project close to the hearts of many with an impressive debut outing that has deservedly been praised by critics since its premiere at Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.
Following the footsteps of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand before her, vocal titan Lady Gaga steps into the shoes of the beloved role of an aspiring songwriter destined for stardom. First introduced in the film’s opening moments taking out the trash in a local restaurant, we hear a glimpse of her untamed talent, an angelic voice that reverberates through the night sky. As the title card fades onto the screen, it’s palpable that we’re in for something special.
Bradley Cooper is Jackson Maine, a faded rock-and-roll icon whose love for the music he creates is in constant conflict with his deteriorating health fuelled by alcohol and substance abuse. As he searches for a bar following an electrifying live show in the film’s opening scene, he stumbles onto a drag bar; neon lights and smoke warming the damp air. As he chugs back on his gin, a young Ally enters onto the stage, the crowd cheering her arrival. Jackson watches on with curiosity, oblivious to what is to come; a heartfelt rendition of ‘La Vie En Rose’ that leaves him stunned and mesmerised. And he’s not the only one.
Where the previous renditions of the ‘A Star is Born’ story fell short, in my opinion, is with the unconvincing duality between the faded star and the protégé, particularly the 1976 version with Kristofferson and Streisand’s blossoming relationship feeling forced and not at all plausible. Cooper’s version, however, “Lets the old ways die” and is bursting with chemistry between his character and Gaga’s, a genuine admiration for each other that translates behind the camera as well as it does in front of it. They harmonise one another not just vocally but also physically with their performances; the faded rock star and the up-and-coming vocal powerhouse that is Ally is a juxtaposition that places the viewer in a complete state of mesmerisation over their developing relationship. Gaga is truly breath-taking to behold in her role, not just vocally speaking, but also in her portrayal of a woman torn between her rise to fame and her everyday struggle to keep her mentor and beloved from reaching for the neck of a bottle. Her genuine concern and frustration at Maine’s self-inflicted dilapidating wellbeing is heart-wrenching to witness, and Gaga handles these burdens with a true sense of compassion.
It’s also fair to say that the film does play to the vocal strengths of the pop titan that is Lady Gaga, with her live performances in the movie feeling nothing short of genre-defining. But appraisal must also be lauded onto Bradley Cooper, who encapsulates the drunk but charming persona of his character in a similar fashion to Jeff Bridges’ comparable role in ‘Crazy Heart’. Maine’s actions are questionable, and at times unforgivable, but Cooper’s take on the character allows wiggle room for sympathy and benevolence from the viewer. His deteriorating wellbeing is hard to watch, and when Cooper breaks down on screen, we break down with him; an achievement that is hard to come by when both directing and acting in your own project.
The performances are only as good as the soundtrack allows them to be, the case of any effectively executed musical drama. The live music occurs within the film’s diegesis, performed live by both Cooper and Gaga, a subtle nuance that was missing from previous versions of the story. The soundtrack truly is thunderous, and of course, Gaga’s incredible voice is to be expected, but I was pleasantly surprised by Cooper’s raw, gravelling rock tones. In interviews, Gaga describes her companion’s voice to that of a storyteller’s, with each lyric and sound telling its own story; and Maine’s story is both hopeful and poignant. His aforementioned battle with alcoholism, his constant conflict with his older brother (played solemnly by Sam Elliot), and his complete devotion in seeing his protégé and lover rising to stardom results in a killer ensemble of rock ballads and tender love songs that will be listened to for years to come.
One of these tracks is ‘Shallow’, the song from the trailer that will have everyone rushing to their local cinema to hear it roaring from the surround sound of a crowded auditorium. It’s by far the film’s standout moment; the first time Ally has the opportunity to showcase her talent to the masses. As she slowly approaches the stage, terrified and excited about what is to come, I felt myself grinning with excitement as I eagerly awaited Gaga’s explosive vocals. This is the start of Ally’s musical career, the catalyst of which watching on in complete awe as he strings away at his guitar, grinning from ear to ear. What a remarkable discovery of the star that has been born.
A Star is Born is, without a shadow of a doubt, my film of the year so far. Rock music, open roads, sunsets on the horizon, an ensemble of killer performances; there’s nothing not to love about Cooper’s remarkable directorial debut. I found myself weeping as the end credits began to roll, weeping with both elation and heartbreak.
“I will never love again”, Ally sings. Well, I will never be the same again. Bravo, Mr. Cooper.