A STAR IS BORN yet again and this time so is a natural born filmmaker. Actor Bradley Cooper not only headlines the fourth version of the perennial love story, but he makes his directorial debut as well. It’s a stunning accomplishment. You’d expect an actor to be great at coaxing superb performances out of his cast, but Cooper shows a shrewd understanding of pacing, the employment of sound and music, and every other technical aspect to turn the film into art. It may be the most auspicious debut of an actor behind the camera since Robert Redford won an Academy Award for 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. Don’t be surprised if Cooper’s name is called from the stage come Oscar night in 2019.
As if all of that isn’t extraordinary enough, A STAR IS BORN also serves as the feature film debut of music superstar Lady Gaga. She is no less a marvel here, eschewing the theatricality of her stage persona and holding the screen entirely with her natural looks and talent. Whether she’s belting out a song with her powerhouse voice or listening carefully to others in the scene, Gaga turns her inaugural performance into one of the year’s most winning characterizations.
Gaga plays Ally, a singer/songwriter struggling to get her big break while working in a hotel to make ends meet. Her life changes when she meets country rock superstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) in a drag bar. She’s performing there, and he’s stumbled in looking for a nightcap after he downs a bottle of booze in his limo after a concert. Maine may be an alcoholic whose taste for showbiz is faltering, but he comes to life when he hears Ally shake the rafters channeling Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose.”
They chat about show business and writing songs, and each is drawn to the other. Then Ally sings a fragment of a song she’s working on and Jack, as he prefers to be called, is smitten. In his direction here, Cooper displays a deft touch. He lets the couple’s conversation build for the better part of 20 minutes of screen time, not shying away from the pauses and awkward silences that occur between them. He’s also very generous with Gaga, letting her dominate their scenes together.
Jack can’t get enough of Ally and loves looking at her unvarnished, natural looks. (She was made up to look like Piaf in the bar.) He reluctantly says goodnight to her but sends his driver the next day to retrieve her to join him in another city for a concert. While he’s onstage, Jack starts singing Ally’s song, adding his own melody to it and giving it a bridge. He invites her onstage, and she belts it out for the stadium audience just like she did for him when they first met.
Soon, they’re falling in love, touring together, and Ally starts performing her own songs on stage, some with Jack and some alone. Her star is on the rise, and all is well. Jack’s manager, his long-suffering older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), likes Ally, and her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) digs Jack for his fame and his down-to-earth affability around his daughter and friends. Paradise is not long for this world, however, as Ally’s rise is meteoric and Jack’s addiction to booze and pills starts to seem him descend. If you’ve seen the other versions of “A Star is Born,” you know where the story is going, but what makes this so fresh is the smart, modernized script by Eric Roth, Will Fetters, and Cooper, and the savvy and sensitive direction by the latter throughout.
So many showbiz stories come off phony and even naïve in their presentation of it, but not here. Cooper nails the rush of performing in concert and the scale of it in the very first scene. The backstage scenes feel authentic too, even a traumatic one at the Grammy’s. Most importantly, Cooper keeps his film intimate, mostly filling his frame with the star-crossed lovers. He gives quality screen time to the supporting players, including Dave Chapelle as Jack’s oldest friend, but he keeps his focus on Ally and Jack.
Cooper and his writers do one other extraordinary thing here – they take some precise and savage digs at the MTV and American Idolization of the music industry. The villain of A STAR IS BORN is an arrogant British manager (Raz Gafron), who clearly suggests Simon Cowell, as he attempts to mold Ally into a red-haired, auto-tuned, dancing fembot to make her more “commercial.” It sours Jack even more on showbiz and the script is on his side. He may be battling demons, including his diminishing hold of the spotlight, but he knows the difference between singing and selling.
Ally knows he’s right too and never feels comfortable in the Ariana Grande/Demi Lovato mode. As she becomes more and more famous, the singer/songwriter yearns to yield more control over her art. It helps to draw the audience to her and Jack, seeing that both of them are too smart for the room, even if they’re forced to play the games in it. That’s especially true with Jack who is never quite the total train wreck as this character has been portrayed in previous films. Jack remains self-aware throughout and is strong enough to go to rehab and thrive. Wisely, the script also shows him making amends with his brother and Ally for all the consternation he’s caused them.Both leads do incredibly nuanced work, and while Gaga’s performance is incredible, so is Cooper’s. He cleverly channels Sam Elliott in his craggy, lived-in voice, and he shuffles around like a man in pain from his past and his peccadilloes. Jack may be too tired to lift his feet and sometimes his chin, but his eyes are still alert, brazenly blue, and intent on all that he focuses on, especially Ally. Cooper has shown incredible range as an actor over the course of his IMDB.com resume and here he proves, once again, to be one of our finest leading men. Cooper’s even a terrific singer and could probably make a living at that too if he desired it. (Let’s hope he concentrates on acting and directing.)
A STAR IS BORN even delivers an outstanding soundtrack. A number of people have written songs for the movie, including Gaga, and almost all are melodic and memorable. (Gaga may win an Oscar for Best Actress and Best Song for the soaring ballad “Shallow.”) Matthew Libatique’s handheld camerawork deserves special mention too, as he gets the audience close to the action in every scene making us feel like flies on the wall. And Cooper breaks our heart onscreen and off. His last 10 minutes of screen time will not leave a dry eye in the house. But there’s nothing maudlin or crass about how this film works our emotions. It feels genuine and sensitive in every moment. Cooper has approached directing this using the same gaze Jack gives Ally – one filled with focus, admiration and absolute awe. That’s a lot of love, and you’ll look at A STAR IS BORN the same way.