There are certain movies that invite the audience in without hesitation. Christopher Nolan did it with the iconic opening bank heist in “The Dark Knight”, David Fincher opened “The Social Network” by dropping us into the middle of private conversation at a college bar, Hell even Steven Soderbergh didn’t give us a second to breath before putting us front center at a male strip club in “Magic Mike.” But as enjoyable as these films are they all lack one major thing; they are not A Star is Born. This film is a prime example of what can happen when you shove your audience into the chaos without a moment’s notice. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a powerhouse of a film that will soon become a moment not just for its audience, but for the astonishing being that is Lady Gaga. As if she needed anything else to rule the world she can now add actor extraordinaire to her resume. This is the film to see, it’s that simple.
Before the film even begins there is a great chance someone will say “this isn’t the original version you know.” Yes, stranger sitting next to me most to all of us know that A Star is Born has been done before, three times to be exact. And while the most memorable is the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason there are many elements that allow Cooper’s take on the familiar tale to be fresh and exciting. Continuing with the change from the 1976 version the protagonists are changed from actors to singers allowing for this film to become one of the best concert movies since Jonathan Demme explored the genre.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine a hard country rocker who still manages to fill up stadiums in a modern day where pop and hip hop rule the charts. Jackson spends his days loaded on booze and pills fighting with his brother/manager Bobby (an Oscar worthy performance by Sam Elliot), but still manages to enthrall his audience with every concert. Cooper as a director feels for Jackson and knows he can give us a good time which is why he doesn’t wait a second before giving us all backstage passes to the chaotic and mesmerizing life of a rock concert. The camera whirls around in circles, the close ups show the sweat on the guitars and the music blasts so loud that one can’t help it but be spellbound by everything in front of them.
Cooper’s vocals will surprise even the strongest of doubters as his voice croons sharp notes all while rocking a mangled beard and messy rocker hair reminding us that Kris Kristofferson did indeed once play this part. The crowd goes wild and with the snap of a guitar string Jackson is in the back of his car in search of his next drink. It isn’t hard to tell where Jackson’s life is going, the alcoholic celebrity is an overkill in Hollywood movies, but Cooper does the best thing any actor can do while playing drunk; he makes us believe it. Cooper knows the worst way to play a drunk is by always drinking so instead he gives his best Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” impression laughing and smiling his way through everything drink not in hand. Jackson knows his time is over which is why he goes stumbling around an unfamiliar block one night looking for a drink even if it is more than clear what he is truly looking for.
Enter Ally, a struggling waitress who occasionally performs at a drag club. She’s just your typical girl, only she’s not, she’s Lady fricken Gaga. Born Stefani Germanotta but performing as Lady Gaga one thing becomes instantly clear, she is impeccable. Stripping herself of full makeup and extravagant costumes Gaga is still Gaga as she belts out her opening number of “La Vie en rose” capturing everyone but most importantly Jackson Maine. The two of them have instant chemistry which is only sold because Cooper and Gaga themselves are a delight to watch. Ally is won by Jackson’s charm, but she never lets herself go completely over to his side even after a night on the town involving bar fights and convenient store parking lot songwriting. It is not until she is brought to one of his concerts that she decides to let her guard down and the audience is the true winner as the two of them belt out what will soon be an Oscar winning song “The Shallows.” This song has become familiar with recent audience from the film’s two minute trailer (and best short film this year if you ask me) that has already been the face of a thousand internet memes, but nothing can prepare you for the way Cooper and Gaga deliver this performance, if this is the moment everyone takes away so be it, it deserves nothing less.
After Ally’s performance goes viral it is all too clear one what will happen next. An agent offers her the world, Jackson’s fame declines rapidly along with his health, and the relationship is hit with so many ups and downs you begin to lose track. But that isn’t what makes this film so genuine, it is Cooper’s ability to bring this story into today’s times allowing for a more empathetic take on an already emotion driven story. Ally’s agent (Rafi Gavron) isn’t a scumbag, pop music isn’t seen as selling out and most importantly Jackson’s addiction is never villainized or over empathized. If anyone going has experience with addiction there are moments in Cooper’s performance that are all too real, Ally’s support of Jackson never brings about eye rolls from the audience wondering why she still stays with him. Cooper also decides to move his character away from the usual over jealously and aggressive being, and it is this appreciation of both characters that make certain scenes incredibly painful to watch, but also make this the first version that is completely honest.
A Star is Born brings hope that the thoughtful studio film might be alive again. Between “Crazy Rich Asians” and A Star is Born Warner Brothers is having one Hell of a year, but the most important thing a studio can take from this is that audience deserve these types of films. A film that is pure cinematic pleasure but doesn’t stoop to a lower level. So major studios I implore you to listen to the words of the soon to be best original song, because baby, “we’re far from the shallow now.”
A Star is Born
Director: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper
Rated: R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse