Jackson Maine is a popular country singer battling alcohol and drug addictions. Ally is a woman who has all but given up on her dreams of being a singer. They meet one night when she is performing at a bar he happened to pass by when he was out of liquor. He is instantly captivated, beginning a relationship that changes both their lives. He tries to help her realize her dreams while he himself appears headed for serious trouble.
If this general plot outline sounds familiar, it should. This is the fourth version of A Star is Born, not to mention countless other films that followed a similar narrative path. It is a safe bet most moviegoers have seen this story told in some form. It is a pretty easy story to tell, though a difficult one to make stand out. This iteration, directed/co-written/produced by Bradley Cooper and starring him and Lady Gaga, does stand out thanks to the passion of the performances, the intimacy of the filmmaking and the music. There are a few aspects that did not completely work for me, however that feels like a minor quibble. Because what does work is phenomenal. There are large sections here that contain some of the best filmmaking of 2018.
The opening, covering approximately the first 24 hours after they meet, is maybe the best written, directed and performed stretch of any movie this year. So much information about Jack and Ally is gained just from the way they look at each other. For a story like this to succeed, the audience has to care for the characters. This movie made me care for its protagonists so quickly that, within ten minutes, I was already worried about them. Their dialogue during this part of the film is so honest and real and it leads up to a concert scene that could be the best of its type I have ever seen. As a whole, the rest of A Star is Born does not quite live up to its first act, though individual scenes certainly do. But that start perfectly introduces the major characters and themes that define this story.
While many people deserve credit for this film’s success, much of the talk will be about what an amazing job Bradley Cooper did with it. He has obviously had several hits as an actor, but this is his first credit as either a screenwriter or director. It is odd to call a film confident, but it is clear he knew exactly what he wanted from every frame. There is no wasted moment here. Each scene does something to further the plot or develop a character.
Cooper trusts the substance of his story enough that he never props it up with style. He also trusts his actors (including himself), allowing them plenty of opportunity to get across the emotions. A large amount of dialogue is unnecessary when you have faith in the material and the people performing it. In a lot of debuts, you can sense the director trying to show you everything they know how to do. Not Cooper. He has the patience and timing of someone who has been doing this for years.
It helps that Cooper gives the best performance of his career. He is effortlessly able to establish the talent and charisma of Jackson Maine. He somehow conveys both a star presence and a down to earth quality. He is very easy to like, which goes a long way toward explaining why those around him put up with the headaches that come with him.
Matching him step-for-step is Lady Gaga, announcing herself as more than a singer dabbling in acting. The title could just as well apply to her. We knew she could sing, but her moments on-stage here display a level of skill I did not expect. We are not just watching a talented woman sing a song. Some musicals stop their story to watch the actors sing. While the music in A Star is Born is good, every single lyric is a key part of the character’s journey. Because of everything we learn about her (plus the consistently intimate camera placement by director of photography Matthew Libatique), watching Ally sing is a totally different experience than watching Lady Gaga sing. People keep calling this her acting debut, which is untrue; she was in two other movies and a tv show. However, this is the first time it feels like she has been cast for more than her persona. She has now proven she can really act.
The 2018 A Star is Born (130 minutes without the end credits) feels like it could have been produced in 1954, when the up-to-now most beloved version of this story was made. It is a tear-jerking melodrama built on the movie star abilities of its two leads who are surrounded by a skilled supporting cast whose main job is to make the stars look better (including the great Sam Elliot as Jackson’s brother, Dave Chappelle as a confidant, Anthony Ramos as Ally’s friend and Andrew Dice Clay as her father; they are all very good). When done well, this formula can work brilliantly. It has been done well here. It introduces Bradley Cooper as a true directorial force and shows that Lady Gaga could have a second career if she wants it. Expect to hear a lot about A Star is Born on Oscar night.
4½ out of 5
Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine
Lady Gaga as Ally
Sam Elliot as Bobby
Dave Chappelle as Noodles
Andrew Dice Clay as Lorenzo
Anthony Ramos as Ramon
Rafi Gavron as Rez
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters