Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott. Directed by Bradley Cooper.
In the history of the academy awards, there have only been two films to nab the “big five” (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Lead Actor and Lead Actress), the two that hold the honours are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. In this, we might have the third film to make that list (which would also mean four Oscars going to Bradley Cooper in one night, the greedy bastard.)
No doubt you would have heard that this is the fourth screen version of the story. The 1937 original, set in the backdrop of the film industry, featured Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the central roles. The second was a musical version in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and the third and possibly best known came in 1976 with rock music as the backdrop, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Now, Cooper co-writes, produces, directs and stars in this version which finds itself more in the country-rock subgenre, with Lady Gaga starring alongside.
The story is a tale as old as time: washed up singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is hitting the booze and drugs too hard, but his career is still doing fine, one night he rocks up to a drag bar where he sees the only actual female performing, Ally (Gaga), and discovers in her a potential muse. Together they begin to improve each others lives, but as one rises the other declines.
From the off it’s very easy to say, this film is brilliant. A soaring, emotional ride with down the bone performances and songs that burrow into your heart. There are two films that should be remade for each generation, A Star Is Born and Scarface. Scarface, should, in fact, follow whoever the mass migrant population in the US is, and A Star is Born is one of those romantic stories of tragedy that can be endlessly retold.
In the past, Cooper has been up for some big awards, produced some passion projects and generally been a brilliant performer. Here, he gives the performance of his career. Taking of director duties, taking cues from his former mentor Clint Eastwood, here there’s an unshowy realness to his direction that bodes well if he wants to continue doing this. It seems less like a vanity project, and it seems that someone clearly got in his head and made him driven to tell this story on his own terms.
The screenplay also helps – the dialogue is written in a way that slowly reveals the people, their issues, their stories and their fears. Dialogue scenes never seem to be too long, or to be an expense that could be gotten rid of; there is as much emotion in the leads talking to one another as there is in them singing.
There is at the heart of this film three super solid performances. Cooper has zero vanity in his role as washed up drinker Jackson Maine. His unkempt wavy hair forever sweat-drenched, his beard flecked with silver, his face that shade of red you get from too much drink. Even his voice sounds like too many evenings spent smoking one too many cigarettes. It’s a pure performance, and one that cements why he’s a mega-star and why he has been given this project to do with as he pleases. His singing voice surprises the most in that who could have guessed he’d pull off such a complex singing role.
Next to him is the opposite. Who knew from a cameo in two Robert Rodriguez films and some off the wall American horror Story performances Lady Gaga could dig into her soul and show us what lays beneath those layers of performance. Yes, her voice is vocal velvet, obviously, but her eyes tell you what she doesn’t say, she’s a broken person. Kept down because of what people see, not hear, Gaga delivers a powerhouse performance that anchors the film. You fall for her as Ally, just as Jackson does.
The third tier of the performance piece is Sam Elliott as Jackson’s manager/half-brother Bobby, his turn is more nuanced, a man who has been the backbone of a man’s life with zero respect, his own dreams somewhat failed, nothing to show for himself but a life of regrets. Elliott has always been a solid southern performer but here he’s quietly intense, delivery some of his best scenes with no dialogue. One scene in which he backs out of a driveway after a conversation, his eyes red with tears is a masterclass in restrained emotion.
It also helps that the songs are universally brilliant. To pick one would be impossible and it’s very possible that come awards season there may very well be a case of a double song nomination for the film. Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and Gaga deliver songs of emotional truth that continue to further the story of the film. They aren’t just songs, they are narrative tools, the songs work outside the film, but elevate it within them. Shallow, the emotional core of the film is a brilliant piece of songwriting, as well as ‘Maybe it’s Time’ and ‘Always Remember Us this Way’.
It’s not overselling to say this is one of the films of the year, and a chance for the naysayers of actor-directors or singer-actors to sit down and be silent, because this is a film for the ages, it sits with the other three as a brilliant story, well told, and with emotional heft.