There are few things more enjoyable than a big bold old-fashioned melodrama done well, and this new version of an old story with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is melodrama with a whole lot of heart done very very well.
I haven’t seen any of the previous iterations of A Star is Born, but I was familiar with the basic premise; one suspects that this “one comet rises, another falls” story will keep on being re-invented and re-told until the humankind perishes in a zombie apocalypse. In this incarnation, Cooper (who also makes an impressive directing debut) plays Jackson Maine, an alt-country singer who, one night after the gig is over, finds himself drinking in a drag club. There he locks eyes with Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who performs a stunning version of La Vie en Rose. There is an instant spark between the two, and a sense that both Jackson and Ally are attracted to each other’s talent as well as physically.
Ally is an accomplished singer/songwriter and no wallflower, but her confidence has been frayed after the constant rejection by the record companies who like her voice but deem her not pretty enough to make it. In a moment that’s easily the film’s absolute euphoric high, Ally becomes an overnight viral sensation after Jackson invites her onstage during his show. But while her star is on the rise, Jackson’s own trajectory is increasingly pointing downwards. He’s a self-sabotaging man addicted to pills and alcohol, and later scenes reveal damage that runs all the way back to childhood. As Ally becomes a household name and a pop juggernaut, their personal relationship is breaking down beyond salvaging.
This kind of film is basically an actors’ duet and it lives or dies on the strength of the performances and chemistry between the leads. Luckily Cooper and Gaga have a smashing chemistry and the early scenes of Ally and Jackson where their love blossoms are especially intoxicating to watch. Lady Gaga is rightly lauded for her turn and pulls off the emotional scenes and musical numbers with flair and intensity, but for me the true revelation of the film is Bradley Cooper. I wasn’t one of the women who swooned over his smarmy dudebro turn in The Hangover, and it took me a while to get over this initial distaste even though Cooper repeatedly proved himself an excellent actor since. This is the first time I wholeheartedly loved him onscreen; Cooper knocks it out of the park and is hundred percent believable as an arena rocker with a credible gravelly croon. He does a fantastic job directing both the quiet intimate scenes and the thrilling live music performances.
After I’ve heaped praise on the movie it’s fair to mention some criticisms. The second half sometimes struggles to keep up with the heights of the first, though the film eventually comes through with a strong finish. Also, while the movie never overtly states “country/rock music = good and real, pop music = bad and vacuous”, I couldn’t quite figure out how we were meant to feel about Ally’s transformation into a glossy pop star. Is the audience supposed to cheer on her success, or are we meant to share Jackson’s dismay at Ally losing something in the makeover? My other personal gripe was that, between Sam Elliott playing Jackson’s much older brother and Bradley Cooper lowering his voice by an octave to sound just like Sam Elliott, some crucial dialogue got lost among the mumble.
None of the above however is a deal breaker and overall the movie hits all the right emotional buttons in all the right ways. I lost count of how many times I’ve overheard people around me gush about how much they loved the movie in the last week since I’ve seen it.
P.S. It was a nice surprise to see Our Own* Marlon Williams on the big screen, briefly performing Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman during the film’s Grammy Awards event. They really couldn’t have picked a better voice.
*Yeah yeah he’s from New Zealand, but sorry Kiwis, we’re stealing him like we stole Crowded House.