The opening of A Star Is Born gives us Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a country-fried rock star who can pack booze and pills as well as he can pack a stadium. He still manages to play and sing like a champ; a functioning alcoholic of the highest order. He also exudes an intoxicating and rugged sexiness that’s undeniable.
Cut to Lady Gaga as Ally, a waitress breaking up with her lawyer boyfriend and being harassed by her shitty boss. She leaves for a singing gig, disappearing into an alley singing strains from “Over the Rainbow,” in a wink to Judy Garland, who starred in the 1954 version of the film. Cooper goes one better by giving us a huge, red title card, classic for 1950s Warner Bros films. Throughout the film
After his show, he and his driver go on the hunt for more late-night liquor and stumble, quite literally, on The Bleu Bar, a gay club on drag night. But this night is special says Ramon (Anthony Ramos) since his friend Ally (Lady Gaga) is going to perform live. RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Willam and Shangela (as the bar owner) make cheeky and hilarious cameos as Ally comes to the stage to sing “La Vie en Rose” in full Edith Piaf face. She vamps it up in a cabaret-style performance engaging the audience but Cooper and Gaga keep the reigns in from ever being camp or kitsch. She lays down on the bar and her eyes meet Jackson’s and his world stops. Backstage, Jackson looks at Ally’s face and her glued on eyebrows. “May I take those off?” he asks. There is a gentleness to the moment, on top of the mask/metaphor.
The two take off to a cop bar where they’re confronted by a guy who’s wife screwed a guy that looked like Jackson and Ally, full of piss and vinegar hauls off and clocks the guy. The pair bail the scene of the crime and head to the frozen section of a grocery store so he can get her a bag of frozen peas to keep the swelling of her hand down. There is a carefulness here, as with the eyebrow scene, that Cooper isn’t treating Gaga’s Ally with the wrong kind of male protector vibe. It’s a delicate balance that is managed perfectly. In the parking lot, Ally sings a few lyrics of a song and then belts into “The Shallow” (the big number from the trailer) and Jackson is gob-smacked all over again.
Jackson returns Ally home the next morning and asks her to see his stadium show later that night. She has to work, she says. But one more comment from her boss and she throws in the towel and she and Ramon board a chartered plane (thanks to Jackson) and watch side stage. He begs her to go on stage, telling her he’s worked up an arrangement to the song in the parking lot. She refuses. She thinks about it, builds her courage and steps out on stage. She starts singing and, I mean we know Gaga can sing, but she SINGS. As a director, Cooper stages the concert scene with tremendous intimacy. Performed live by both Cooper and Gaga, they have urgency and agency. The camera focuses on Ally alone. She’s not looking at the audience for confidence, she’s looking at Jackson and she’s looking from within, startled to find it. It’s a glorious moment and just part of an electrifyingly good performance from Lady Gaga.
This sets the stage for what the story ultimately is, a fall and a rise, a star being born.
As the two continue to travel to opposite ends of the spectrum, Jackson’s drinking and pill taking gets worse, Ally gets a manager in Rez (a very good Ravi Gavron) who succeeds in changing Ally’s look and musical style from the pop-country ballads she’s been performing (which are a natural fit for Gaga’s existing canon of songs like “You and I” and “Million Reasons”), turning her into a cheesy, dance-pop princess. Sometimes the songs are a bit too on the nose, like a Saturday Night Live number where she sings “this is not like me” but in a musical drama, songs often exist as the subtext of what’s happening so it’s not too much of a crime.
Ally’s career rises and she’s nominated for three Grammy awards. At the show, she wins and as she’s giving her speech Jackson is crawling his way up next to her (another nod to the 1954 version), existing completely in his own world, mortifying her. It’s a scene so full second-hand cringy embarrassment you want to cover your eyes like a car crash. And in a sense, it is. A slow motion, unavoidable trauma that is playing out right before your eyes.
There is something very different about how this film treats and portrays addiction. Firstly, Cooper’s ‘acting drunk’ transcends almost any version I’ve ever seen. It is frightfully lived in, with subtle elements like his rolling eyes that make this the best performance of his career. It’s also one of the best directorial debuts I’ve ever seen. Rare is it that an actor can work with powerhouse directors and learn so well without simply being a carbon copy of one. This is Cooper’s film from the first frame to the last and it’s absolutely one of the best films of the year.
Veteran actor Sam Elliott plays Cooper’s brother, who has worked for him for decades. Old rivalries, accusations of career theft and deep-seeded jealousy are tightly bound in their relationship and Elliott gives a good performance in his limited screen time. Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father) and Dave Chapelle (as Jackson’s oldest friend) do a fine job in very small parts.
There isn’t an element of the film that isn’t working at the highest level; from Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, which uses closeups as well as embracing the fullest of the wide angles to Jay Cassidy’s editing (I can’t believe this film didn’t take more than one) to the pitch perfect sound design from Alan Robert Murray and Steve Morrow. It’s all flawless in service of the story.
This may be the fourth version of this film and story but it forges its own path, on its own terms and is vibrant, personal and raw in its examination of celebrity, romance and the cost of fame, love and, addiction.