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A Star is Born (2018) starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Another incarnation of the classic story
This is the fourth big-screen version of William A. Wellman and Robert Carson’s story, previously adapted in 1937, 1954 and 1976. Bradley Cooper (who also directed and co-wrote this version) plays Jackson Maine, an alcoholic and drug-abusing country rock star. One evening, after a gig, he visits a drag bar in order to have a few drinks while watching the entertainments. One of the singers is a young woman named Ally, played by Lady Gaga. Jackson is wowed by her talent and goes to visit her in her dressing room in order to voice his appreciation. They hit it off and rapidly become friends.
One day, Jackson’s chauffeur Wolfie (Michael Harney), knocks on the door of the house where she lives with her father Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), a former singer himself but one who never got a big break. Acting on behalf of his employer, he attempts to persuade her to come to one of his shows. Despite her father begging her not to brush off her chance of a lifetime, she initially refuses because she’s due to start her next shift at a local restaurant. However, when she arrives at her workplace and is reprimanded by her employer being late, she changes her mind and walks out along with her best buddy, Ramon (Anthony Ramos). They meet again with Wolfie and are taken to Jackson’s gig via a private jet.
While at the gig, Ally is invited to an on-stage duet with the actor - an appearance which wows audiences and sets her on the road to fame. Their relationship soon turns from friendship to love as Ally rises up the ladder. However, difficulties start to arise as Ally’s manager, Rez (Rafi Gavron) moulds her into a glamour-heavy, soul-light pop star. Jackson tries hard to remind her to avoid losing sight of what makes her so remarkable and authentic in the first place. On the other side of the coin, Ally attempts to deal with Jackson’s escalating battles with drink and drugs.
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Unexpectedly superb filmmaking
Up until its recent, rapturous critical reception, it would have been easy to approach A Star is Born with a fair amount of cynicism. Firstly, it’s a third-time remake. Secondly, it’s Bradley Cooper’s screenwriting and directorial debut - with him taking one of the two lead roles himself as well as writing and performing his own music. Did I just hear someone cough “vanity project”? Thirdly, it provides singer-songwriter Lady Gaga with her first leading role. So much could have oh-so-easily gone oh-so-pair-shaped.
Against all odds, however, it’s a cinematic triumph. Cooper and Gaga make for a terrific on-screen duet, both on and off stage. The singing and musicianship are heart-stirringly soulful and passionate. They share a genuine chemistry together, especially during their more playfully intimate moments. Adopting a laconic drawl similar to the trademark voice of his co-star Sam Elliott, Bradley Cooper commits admirably to playing a damaged character whose misuse of intoxicants has a real-life parallel to the actor’s own personal battles with the same in the early 2000s. However, it’s Gaga’s performance which is the real revelation here. Stripped of her usual surface glamour (at least until the second half of the film, when she becomes a raunchy pop star clone of herself), her performance mixes warmth, earthiness, unassuming charm and ballsy determination in one superbly-rounded portrayal. While she’s basically playing her real-life self behind the Lady Gaga image, she does so with an assuredness and emotional honesty which both captures and deserves your full attention.
As a first-time director, Bradley Cooper is also disarmingly impressive. While his approach has a certain documentary-like rawness, there’s a precise sense of style in his use of warm lighting and Scorsese-style lengthy tracking shots which you would expect from a third or fourth film, not a debut. He also manages to get fine, realistic performances from the supporting cast, most notably from Andrew Dice Clay - a man historically better known for being a notoriously obnoxious comic - as Ally’s well-meaning father. Sam Elliott also displays his usual scraggy charm playing Jackson’s older brother, manager and father figure.
While Cooper’s focus is on visual and aural sensations (as wonderful as they are), he weaves in such subject matter as slow decline by alcoholism, the inherent pains of true love and the loss of self to a public image in a gradual, slow-burning manner which reaches a devastatingly tragic conclusion. Although slightly overlong, it’s a film whose emotional imprint - at its heights (when Ally truly reveals the full majesty of her soaring singing voice) and lows (Jackson’s blurry, messy struggles with the bottle and pills) - will stay with you for a long time after the end credits have rolled.
Runtime: 136 mins
Dir: Bradley Cooper
Script: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman & Robert Carson
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Michael Harney, Alec Baldwin