A STAR IS BORN. Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott. Directed by Bradley Cooper. 136 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, drug use and sex scenes).
Making his directorial debut with the third American remake of 1937 film ‘A Star is Born’, Bradley Cooper, the handsome and talented star of the ‘Hangover’ trilogy, ‘American Sniper’ and ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’, delivers a knockout meditation on celebrity and addiction, love and success. It follows similar beats to the 1973 film, which starred Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand, but delivers a realism to its melodramatic rise-and-fall tale that the previous iteration lacked. Cooper’s savviest move as a first-time filmmaker was his casting of Lady Gaga as the titular leading light, Ally. Gaga, the pop sensation born Stefani Germanotta, has possibly the most exquisite voice ever unleashed in a mainstream film. Her handful of performances in the film would be reason alone for her casting, but she’s also a terrific actress (there’s plenty of justifiable early Oscar buzz in the air), and she and Cooper anchor the story brilliantly. We already knew that Cooper could act (this film should reliably deliver his fourth acting nomination from the Academy), but ‘A Star is Born’ announces the noteworthy arrivals of Cooper as a director and Gaga as a bona fide megastar.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous country rocker who powers his raw, throaty performances with innumerable swigs of gin and handfuls and non-descript painkillers. The opening scene follows Maine out onto the stage of a music festival, where he belts out a powerful, guitar-shredding ditty called ‘Black Eyes’, co-written for the film by Cooper and Lukas (son of Willie) Nelson (even if you don’t catch the film, the soundtrack is well worth listening to on its own). Director of photography Matthew Libatique brings the same intimate camerawork to ‘Star’ that he utilised so effectively in the N.W.A. biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’. The camera floats around Maine and his rhythm guitarist, drifting in and out of their orbits in a dance-like flow while their wild strumming builds a raw, grungy wall of sound around them. It puts you inside their performance but also in the appreciative, baying crowd. Clever touches, like Maine tossing down a couple of pills before walking on as easily as you or I might eat peanuts, sketch the character out. The only thing that could make this immersive, highly enjoyable start to the narrative more impressive is the fact that Cooper and his backing band, reportedly on Gaga’s insistence, performed this track live (along with the rest of the film’s musical numbers).
After the show, Maine’s driver Phil (Greg Grunberg) drops him outside a neon-lit dive bar. As he enters, a young guy called Ramon (Anthony Ramos) suggests that this might not be his kind of venue (it’s hosting a drag show). Maine confirms that they still serve alcohol, then replies: ‘Then it’s my kinda place’. Ramon’s friend Ally (Lady Gaga) performs a sultry and softly thrilling rendition of ‘La Vie en Rose’, which intrigues Maine, and he goes backstage to meet her. They hit it off, and after a night of drinking, bonding over their shared love of music and song writing, he invites her to a concert that he’s playing the next day… interstate. Despite repeated protests that she has to work at her waitressing job that night, Phil and Ally’s Dad Lorenzo (a wonderfully down-to-earth Andrew Dice Clay) eventually convince her to attend, and she and Ramon are whisked off to his show on a private jet. During his performance, Maine invites Ally onstage to perform a duet of one of her own songs, which she sang for him the previous night. It’s a total smash – Gaga’s voice and emotional conviction are enough to bring tears to your eyes – and Ally goes viral, launching her on steep trajectory into fame and fortune.
The film’s use of music to communicate a blossoming romance is really clever. Maine and Ally’s courtship soon develops into an abiding love, but this compressed timeframe works thanks to the intense emotions that accompany the songs that they share (not discounting the natural chemistry shared by Cooper and Gaga). Gaga’s performances are so open and vulnerable that it seems perfectly normal that Maine would fall head over heels for Ally; that they then only elevate each other’s talent makes them the perfect couple. Without the songs that they share together, it would feel like the screenplay were taking shortcuts, but with them it attains an almost documentary-like realism, as though the couple were inadvertently falling in love during the shooting of a “concert film”. Indeed, the intelligent arrangement of the soundtrack conveys the broad strokes of the plot, charting Maine’s unmoored addiction, Ally’s positive influence on his life, Ally’s rising profile and moulding into a popstar by her hardnosed manager (Rafi Gavron), the ups and downs of their relationship all the way up to the story’s powerful conclusion.
‘A Star is Born’ a total crowd-pleaser, sucking viewers in with a charming, often laugh-out-loud first act, then piling on the relationship drama. The screenplay, written by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper, hits a handful of topics that might verge on melodramatic exploitation in the wrong hands (Maine’s addiction, his troubled familial relationships, an impromptu wedding), but here it just feels real and raw. The characters speak frankly and incisively, their loving words and cruel insults equally brimming with feeling. Cooper’s mush-mouthed Maine has a somewhat hollow feel, as though shelled out by years of substance abuse and going through the motions, but when he and Gaga share the screen, he sparkles with keen interest. It’s part of the film’s pleasure and pain to watch him brought back to life by Ally, only to have this new lease on his existence imperilled by the trials that accompany her ascent to fame.
There are plenty of other touches that depict Cooper’s talent as a filmmaker, from the visual trick that mirrors Maine entering an AA meeting with him walking onstage, to the heart-rending performance that he elicits from Sam Elliot as his brother-cum-manager, Bobby. The success of his debut should hand Cooper the keys to the kingdom in Hollywood, and if he can maintain this high standard into future projects, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that he may become one of the leading voices of his generation. ‘A Star is Born’ deserves (and will receive) standing ovations from audiences everywhere.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 18.