A Star Is Born is one of those films that seems to become relevant every couple of decades. The new version is the fourth screen incarnation if you don’t count the unofficial porn movie of a similar name. each one is a snapshot of its time and the changes made reflect what was deemed to be the more important aspect of the entertainment business. The first two films were Hollywood based with an aging actor taking an screen ingenue under their wing and propelling them to stardom. The 1976 version shifted the focus to the music industry as the Hollywood machine was in a slump in the mid seventies and music was the bigger draw. For Bradley Coopers directorial debut he has taken the most recent version as his tarting point and added a whole lot more.
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a man who appears to be at the top of the tree. A successful artist for a number of years and a massive draw on tour makes him a big deal. Offstage he is barely functioning. An addiction that takes in pills and alcohol he is only really alive with a guitar in front of him. After a gig he stops off for a drink at a drag bar and witnesses Ally (Lady Gaga) singing. He sees the talent in her and after much persuasion, over the course of a day, gets her to sing with him onstage. She is an immediate sensation. As she tours with Jack they become close and Ally’s fame starts to build. Son it becomes apparent that she is the one that is heading for the top while Jack spirals out of control.
The first hour of this film is an absolute rush. From the first frame we get a real sense of the life that Jack leads. As the feedback whines, Jack is getting ready to go onstage. He has a drink and some pills and virtually transforms into the rock star that he is. With barely a pause after the song we follow him to his encounter with Ally. This gives us the first great dramatic moment when she is performing. She lays down on the bar and slowly turns to look directly at Jack. It is a sublime moment which gives the audience the whole reason for the film. From there it is one scene after another of singing, partying and the general exhilaration of life on the road.
Gaga is superb. There isnt any other way to put it. He singing and performance skills are well documented but what is a revelation is the range of her acting. This is a major role that requires depth and good deal of skill to pull off. She feels natural as Ally. Unlike some of the previous versions the female lead is slightly older. Ally is no teenage girl looking for success. She is a woman who has been through the system but can’t catch a break. She is world weary, a realist but still a performer. For Gaga to convey this with such ease is a testament to her own talent.
Bradley Cooper went the extra mile for his portrayal of Jack. He trained his voice to be an octave lower than normal and spent 18 months learning to sing, write songs and play guitar to a level that looks and feels authentic. The choice of lower registry in his voice initially seems like and odd choice but as the story progresses and we are introduced to his road manager and brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) is soon becomes apparent. When Jack was beginning he took on his brother’s voice as his own and it has been a contentious issue between them ever since.
With the high of the opening, the second half of the film struggles a little to match it. The relaying of the downward spiral of Jack mirroring Ally’s rise is absorbing to watch but feels a bit familiar. Copper wisely holds back from trying to gain sympathy for his character. The decline is messy and humiliating with it laid out for the audience to observe without pity.
For a film that is so big in terms of its story it is surprisingly intimate. The musical numbers, whether in a stadium or a small club, reflect the closeness of the couple and the way that the music connects them and at the same time shuts everything else out. The camera is always close up on either Cooper or Gaga during these scenes with the audience never in focus and only a general noise. This technique is used later in the film as Jack’s hearing issues start to become a real problem. Everyone who speaks to him has to lean in creating that feeling of cleanses again. It is a nice touch.
There has already been chatter about awards for the film and it will be a surprise if the film and its main stars are not in the conversation at least when the baubles are getting handed out.