Bradley Cooper's directorial debut features strong performances and music, even if the second half is a bit divisive.
When notable actors shift gears and take on new roles behind the scenes, the results are either robust masterpieces or middling wannabe productions, with few settling somewhere in between. In the same fashion, even some of the more prominent vanity projects (like Academy Award winners Dances with Wolves or Braveheart), the films don’t age well, oftentimes falling into the solitude of the attention heavy masses of yesteryear and the gossip of teetotaling anecdotes. Very few end up reaching the heights of the pantheon of great films that are more prominent for their craft than the story behind the camera of the movie star turned auteur. With A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper enhances the mystifying tropes of Hollywood yore to churn out one of the best Hollywood films to come in recent years. When the adage “They just don’t make them like this anymore” is used, it makes sense when referring to a film like this.
In its fourth official reworking (with a number of other films that carry similar storylines), A Star is Born carries with it a level of nostalgia that must be handled with care. Much of that nostalgia comes in the form of the performances of the films’ leading ladies. Janet Gaynor introduced the masses to the wonder of the ingénue-turned-star. Judy Garland elevated it with a Oscar-worthy performance and, arguably, her career best turn (many are still justly upset she lost the award to Grace Kelly). And, Barbra Streisand gave the tale a current music-infused spin that hasn’t quite illuminated the way the others have over time, but her performance is still just as grappling and interesting. In this new outing, Cooper brings to the forefront Lady Gaga, a pop star with whom we’re all overly familiar, but her presents her in a way that is so fresh and new, you forget you aren’t watching a brand-new talent. Due to the character’s arc, this movie magic only enhances the story beyond what we already know. Gaga is a star in her own right, but she’s reinvented on screen with the glance of an unmade-up eye and the charm of an artist finding her place on stage for the first time.
Like the earlier versions, the female lead isn’t the entire story. The tale of fame and fortune fleeing for one star as we watch another champion the spotlight is one of both epic proportions and heartbreak. As an audience member, the spectacle of the limelight and the dream of being famous are ideals that have yet to leave the vernacular of pop culture as we know it. Though we love celebrating our favorite celebrities, we guiltily find pleasure in watching their falls from grace. See both the rise and fall in the same frame is a punch to the gut of emotions. In the earlier A Star is Born films, these falls are shown through managed performances by the likes of Fredric March, James Mason, and Kris Kristofferson. All are even-keeled and captivating, but its Cooper’s turn as the washed up, alcoholic rock star that truly takes the story of the fall to a new level. What acts as a vehicle for Lady Gaga’s entrance into prestige stardom is actually a masterful opportunity for Cooper to give his greatest performance yet.
Outside of the performances, which A Star is Born is a film for performances, Cooper’s vision is illuminating and beautiful. His clever use of the camera is most effective during music sequences, opting to showcase the concert footage from the point of view of the artists, instead of mingling in the crowd. It is, in fact, a story about the artists and how the songs and lyrics have shaped their lives, so it makes sense to experience the pieces with them. This trick also keeps the emotions in check, never opting to exploit a sad moment or overwhelming moment, but instead powering through the ebbs and flows with a strum of the guitar or the rising melody of a song.
The music reigns supreme, with the original tunes on the brink of becoming massive hits. “Shallow” serves as the film’s best ambassador, resonating from the first trailer to the actual moment in the film when Gaga’s anthemic vocals take the stage. But, later songs in the film are even better. “Always Remember Us This Way” and “Is That Alright” are memorable. The film’s final piece, “I’ll Never Love Again,” has Whitney Houston-The Bodyguard elements in it that should allow it to be the surprise winner come Oscar night.
An emotional and visceral experience, for sure, A Star is Born doesn’t exist without its flaws. The first half of the movie is the strongest, with Cooper taking the most risks and offering unique settings and character development. It’s the latter half, when the timeline is sped up, where we lose some of the magic. The screenplay and structure also falls prey to feeling more like an homage to the classic versions of the film, most notably nods to the 1954 and 1976 productions. Gaga, while fantastic, is almost too mineable at parts, which could flounder her Oscar winning chances (though she’ll definitely be nominated). Melodrama is a great, but fleeting, tool. Cooper has the strongest chance of Oscar gold for his performance, while he could inch into the Director race, as well. As his older brother, Sam Elliott, is also a standout and could sneak into the Supporting Actor race.
It isn’t the best movie of the year, in terms of craft, but it is the most accessible, in terms of prestige and popularity. Cooper shows promise as a director with a clear vision for storytelling. Gaga could catapult her acclaim here into a new level of her career. We’ll truly know once we see what she picks as her next project. A Star is Born is easily one of the year’s must-see films. And, make sure to see it with an audience. Hearing other revelers’ reactions to the music and most emotional scenes is quite the comforting experience. It is true. Hollywood doesn’t make them like this anymore.