Directed By: Bradley Cooper/ Written By: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters/ Based on the 1976 Screenplay by Frank Pierson, John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion, based on the 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart, based on a story by William Wellman and Robert Carson/ Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot, Dave Chapelle, and Andrew Dice Clay/ Music written by Lady Gaga and Lukas Nelson
I do not think it takes a lot to make a great movie. The ingredients are simple, but uncommon. The most important thing is to have a good script, and if you don’t, at least have a good story with actors & a director who will apply a clear vision to the material in the writing’s more unrealized spots.
When I first heard that Bradley Cooper was directing a remake of A Star is Born the title alone sounded ‘Oscar-worthy’. It turns out the 1937 version won the Award for Best Original Story and the ’76 version (the 3rd iteration) received Best Original Song. The second time I heard about the film was after watching Lady Gaga’s impressive Sound of Music performance with Bradley Cooper watching. Remarking one viewer’s sarcastic comment: “Wow, that professional singer can really sing.” is a reminder of how little we expect of the performing arts, a point hit on in the film. Gaga, for the record is classically trained and was educated at Tisch. Throw in some script polish from a very good Academy Award winning writer. It definitely seems like this is a pretty hard project to screw up. My expectations shot up. The festival reviews naturally over-hyped it, as I am used to in 2018. The knowns going in: The songs will at least be good, the actors pull their weight, and at least there’s one very good scene that leaves a strong impression. At this point I’m expecting a 7-7.5 going in. With the right audience I got an 8. And my Dad gave it a “10”.
Bradley Cooper has shown great ambition in his career. I think this is best encapsulated by his character and choice to star in the drama The Place Beyond the Pines after doing a string of comedies that didn’t work. Although The New York Times describes him most like his character Eddie Morra after taking his first pill in Limitless, it’s easy to point to a number of impressive roles in his body of work to see his believable character. That’s no different for Jackson Maine, his latest creation. He doesn’t sound like Bradley Cooper, much like people question about his character in Avengers: Infinity War and the Guardians movies. He believably plays a world weary character who feels like they’ve already had the benefit of a full career, so making the discovery of Ally (Gaga) is all the fresher and more impactful. It’s a perfect combination of movie star and acting performance.
Cooper isn’t the only one delivering career best work. Sam Elliott has my favourite performance of the film as Jackson’s manager and much older brother from another mother. His heavy-hearted emotional beats are reserved, delivered soft-spoken and laden with a beloved rigid masculinity. It’s perfectly tailored for the actor. By the end you just want to pull him out of his Dodge Ram and give his mustache a hug.
Gaga is good as expected. It is sort of hard to tell just how good she is because much of the movie is completely written around her character’s abilities. Andrew Dice Clay is well cast in a small role as her father along with his posse, and Dave Chappelle is a welcome presence showing up in the second act. A Star is Born hits all the right notes particularly in its strongest first 45 minutes. Naturally because Cooper and Gaga are stars themselves they do offer the film some fresh takes about the fame, being recognized and its ‘little monsters’. The creative passion is there.
There are two stumbling blocks Cooper makes as a director and they are placed on emphasis. He knows all the notes, but is not familiar enough with how to play them. A conversation Jackson has with Ally about breaking into the industry spells out her insecurities. Fair enough. In the trailer she says almost everyone has told her they like the way she sounded but not the way she looks. The actual movie is more specific to say its her nose which then becomes a repeated note in the script. It rings off-key, and not just because it’s a hangover from the Barbra Streisand version (someone, but not everyone would say that about Ally). Cooper in front and behind the camera, loves Ally, and never blocks her in unglamorous fashion. We are meant to see her mostly from Jackson’s foggy red tinted point of view, but the movie doesn’t completely nail down how we’re supposed to view their relationship. Is their love real and positive? Artistic collaboration? Both or neither, and just a part of the show? A perfect illusion. Do we want to root for them to stay together, or to move on and make each other grow as artists? Is Ally happy with her musical direction? A spare the moment romantic gesture reads both wonderfully inspired and personally desperate. Cooper does not distinguish its meaning later on, or payoff another relationship promise that would serve the highly invested audience some due clarity.
The clarity of viewing is the biggest problem for this film, which in typical Hollywood fashion also manages to work in its favour. After a great opening 45 minutes, you wonder where the film is going or what it’s building to. Cooper has a lot to say but he doesn’t tie it all together neatly at all and Jackson & Ally’s story at times feels like Jackson and Ally’s stories. The movie gives Jackson gets no less than three unrelated mentor figures that exemplify the narrative drift, but thanks to the performances it is engaging even to see him stumble. The film holds on after those incredible first 45 minutes and doesn’t drop the beat, but after those moments you’ve really seen all that it has to offer save for a few more great songs. It helps this feature gave me the rare gift of a great viewing audience. This movie plays to the crowds. I was pleasantly surprised they were so reactive and audibly engaged the whole time. There were laughs and gasps when there should’ve been. Enough positive vibes (aside from the old obese heavy mouth breather two seats down who I left alone) that helped me tune into what was going on when the broader direction failed. It was like getting two viewings each a fresh experience.
In conclusion: A Star is Born is one of the best films of the year. Bradley Cooper made a great directorial debut that also hopefully shows he has a lot of ways to go, while giving his most impressive performance. The whole film is impeccably cast and the actors really work the film’s unrefined edges. It is an engaging, heavy, and ambitious film that drifts too much for its own good, but with the right audience, you should really enjoy the experience.