A Star Is Born is unstoppable.
It’s got audience affection and Academy respectability in its sights, and it barrels straight at them. Produced, directed, written and starring Bradley Cooper, this is the Hangover star’s leap for high populist acclaim and he doesn’t take any chances, fashioning, alongside brilliant co-star Lady Gaga and mother! DP Matthew Libatique, a swelling, soapy, lens-flare multiplex ballad. While you’re busy tapping your foot, it eats your heart.
A Star Is Born’s primary achievement is how it escapes the orbit of well-thumbed, downright cliched, material through sheer performative will. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a damaged classic rock star with an addiction problem and heavy Arizona twang, who discovers, and falls in love with, a younger unknown, Ally, played with scrubbed-down sincerity by Gaga. We have, of course, been here before: even putting aside the 1937 original and its two remakes (Janet Gaynor; Judy Garland; Barbra Streisand), the hard-drinking musician and the wide-eyed songbird who may be in over her head are familiar, corny tropes.
And there’s the potential for corn here; the guitar solos and crushed pills and shady managers. But Cooper and Gaga bring super-charged presence and intimacy, right from their first meeting, in the dressing room at a drag night song session (eyes open, RuPaul fans). Their first section is fun, entrancing and romantic, climaxing in Ally coaxed on stage with Jackson to perform her own song, the surging, already-everywhere “Shallow”.
Even when the story becomes pushy with their accelerated romance, the two’s chemistry and assurance balances the melodrama with authenticity. You could honestly just want them talk to eachother for two hours.
Gaga is expressive and excited, exerting a magnetic pull on the camera, dazzled by the things that are old news to Jackson, and she inspires in him a fresh light, a possible second chance, a kind of escape.
Generally speaking, the first half of the film is Gaga’s, and the second is Cooper’s. Having grabbed the public’s attention, Ally begins the transition to traditional pop star, with backing dancers and a thrusting choreography. Here, you expect the film to dwell on her mistakes and compromises, possibly with a kind of rejection and return to her ‘authentic’ self, but Ally seems content with where she’s going.
The pain is on Jackson’s side, as the buoyancy of their happy collaboration ebbs away, opening room for old, bad habits, for the essential loneliness of the drunk. Again, the addiction of the privileged rock star and the high-profile tumbles off the wagon is not the most obviously compelling arc, but Cooper is like an alchemist magicking cooper into gold, and he’s flanked by the grave granite baritone of Sam Elliot as his brother turned tour manager.
Just as the film threatens to coast on well-thumbed lines, it takes off like a rocket for a spectacular final section, shifting its focus from success and discovery to the weaknesses we cannot escape, and all the humiliation and shame that comes with that.
In a film built on the burning need to express yourself, Cooper finds the weight of silence and absence, and the high emotional stakes of actually being vulnerable, his broken, whirring cogs plain as day on his face. The effect is devastating and absolute, an act of cinematic total war.
The hairs on your skin stand to attention like notes on a sheet. Conor Smyth
A Star Is Born is out on wide release.