The fear of being on stage in front of an audience is said to be among the most crippling phobias many face. How about magnifying that fear with knowing that you were never meant to be there in the first place, that your presence on a performance space in front of hundreds is an unnatural but deeply personal act of self-expression? This is what faces Ally, the protagonist of A Star Is Born, but also Bradley Cooper, the lead and director of this remarkable remake. If Cooper felt pangs of insecurity and stage fright at any time during the making of this, his directorial debut, those feelings are entirely understandable. While Cooper’s acting career is full of impressive highlights, none of those previously included singing, let alone playing a rock star, in a film that would not only require him and a well-chosen costar to carry original tunes but to portray one of cinema’s oldest love stories. To say the least, the opportunity for this movie and its leads to fail spectacularly was obvious the moment it was announced. Thankfully, Cooper’s film succeeds to such a degree, it comes across as a forceful, confident, and emotionally charged ode to stage artistry.
Cooper plays Jack, an acclaimed, wildly popular but self-indulgent rock star whose binge drinking and decadent ways are souring his talent. A random encounter with Ally (played by Lady Gaga in an impressive performance), a gifted songwriter but shy stage presence, inspires Jack to bring her into his tight-knit ring of fire as his personal muse. While the two share a vibrant romance, their relationship becomes difficult when one artist’s success ascends as the other falls.
The previous version of this oft-told tale (there are now four official versions and countless rip-offs) was the hit 1976 Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristofferson vehicle, and Cooper’s film is far more sentimental and successful overall than the ’76 version. If the prior telling was a showcase of ego and excess (both behind and in-front of the cameras), the 2018 version is about performance, particularly how artists are often acting the most when they’re not on stage.
From the exciting opening sequence, in which the audience is immersed in Jack’s rock-and-roll existence, Cooper emphasizes reality in both the setting and the actor’s choices. Despite how old and predictable the story is, the modernized angle always works and everyone in the cleverly chosen ensemble shines.
Cooper is a credible singer but more importantly, he’s a gifted actor who dials into the internal struggle of his characters. This is one of Cooper’s best performances, which seems informed by both Kristofferson’s take on the role and a little bit of Jeff Bridges as well. He’s surprisingly superb and generous as a director, as this is full throttle entertainment and not a vanity project. Cooper’s best scenes are with Sam Elliot, who is spectacular playing Jack’s long suffering brother. Gaga more than holds her own with Cooper and carries the film; like Eminem’s work in 8 Mile, I’m unsure if Gaga is a great actor but her acting is as strong as it needed to be. While Elliot steals the film with his soulful portrayal, there are unexpected character turns from no less than Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle that add light humor and charm when needed.
Many of the songs were co-written by Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson, who appears in a silent supporting role as Jack’s band mate; Nelson, the son of Willie (who gets a nice mention from Elliot’s character), is a Seabury Hall alumni and the accomplished lead of the band Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. The songs are terrific; I’m expecting to see Nelson’s work recognized at award’s time. Equally Oscar-worthy is the beautiful cinematography and the rich sound mix.
While the story becomes glum in the third act, A Star Is Born never succumbs to heavy-handed melodrama or showy scenes of actors screaming at one another. In fact, the biggest standoff is a tense conversation in a bath tub that feels like we’ve invaded an intimate conversation instead of a staged confrontation. The series of sequences that conclude the story are among the most moving of any film this year (that shot of Elliot driving away still kills me). A Star Is Born may be a fantasy but Cooper invests it with real dramatic power.
Rated R/136 min.