REVIEW: A Star is Born (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. Pictures

The following is a review of A Star is Born — Directed by Bradley Cooper.

There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Sam Elliott’s character gives a speech about twelve notes, an octave, and the same story being told over and over again. This feels like first-time director Bradley Cooper’s attempt to justify remaking the A Star is Born story for the third time — the industry is cyclical and only the artists can make new attempts unique.

A Star is Born is the story of the rise of an ingenue and the fall of a star. In some versions of the film, it has been about acting, but, with Bradley Cooper’s film, it is about music, the rise to fame, and image. That is for a good reason because in the film’s most crucial role he has cast Lady Gaga (whose real name is Stefani Germanotta), a singer with a powerful voice, whose real work appeals to multiple audiences.

In Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, we are introduced on-stage to the work of a country star. His name is Jackson Maine (played by Bradley Cooper), a star battling with substance abuse and hearing problems. After having completed a concert, he is looking for a place to have a drink. All of a sudden, he finds himself in a drag bar, and before he knows it he finds himself listening to the musical performances on-stage in the bar.

He is informed by one of the patrons at the drag bar that he has to see the next musical performance. Ally (played by Lady Gaga), a female waitress now dressed in full drag makeup, performs Édith Piaf’s “La vie en rose,” without lip-syncing. This performance is a stunner and Maine is truly amazed. Wowed by her, Maine and Ally walk together all night and discuss her talents as a singer-songwriter while he carefully falls for her.

Eventually, Maine forces her to go on-stage to perform a song she wrote, and, before he knows it, she is a star with a well-known manager who is trying to reshape her into the star giant Hollywood billboards demand. Meanwhile, Maine pushes those closest to him out of his life by drinking his troubles away, which leads to inevitable confrontations, not all of which are pretty, between him and his new partner, Ally.

The first forty minutes-to-an-hour of the film is flat-out fantastic. Seeing Cooper and Gaga’s characters fall for each other is such a pleasure. Their first night together reminded me of Before Sunrise. If Before Sunrise had featured one clearly drunk character and a starstruck aspiring performer, then this would be it. In this first hour, Cooper and Gaga are both magnetic, and both of them give great performances as singers.

Gaga’s voice is obviously incredible here, but, surprisingly, Cooper’s singing ability knocks you out as well. The songs and the way they are performed are, generally, chill-inducing here. The much-hyped first on-stage performance of “Shallow,” is even better in the film than it is in the trailer.

First-time director Bradley Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique give us some beautifully intimate moments between the two. Seeing Cooper run his finger down Gaga’s nose will make you weak in the knees. I only wish I felt the same way about the second half of the film. Because, at a certain point in the film, it started to lose me. It felt like it was treading water, with no unpredictable or uncliched progress in sight. This also has something to do with the way a certain character is designed, is out of focus, or underwritten. More on that in a moment or two.

From start to finish there is this amazing chemistry between Cooper and Gaga, who both give excellent performances. Though it must be said that Jackson Maine’s accent is incredibly distracting (it’s also a plot point, but that doesn’t really make it less distracting). Also, it seems to me like they’ve kept a scene in the film where Gaga, who is in a bathtub here, misspeaks, which leads to an awkward and noticeable improvisation that I thought was jarring. Maybe I am wrong, maybe that was planned, but it certainly didn’t seem like it to me.

The two strongest supporting performances in the film come from Sam Elliott and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay. In what I’d refer to as the ‘truck conversation,’ both Cooper and Elliott play the male emotional outburst — or lack thereof — to perfection. There is a repressed sadness that they handle really well. For Cooper, it is an excellent cracked voice resembling a whimper, for Elliott, it is an attempt to play off the emotion as part of an unemotional action. Andrew Dice Clay, who plays Ally’s father, is note-perfect in a somewhat funny, but also brutally honest performance as a worried father focused on glory days.

Gaga’s character, Ally, is the underwritten character I mentioned before, and I believe the extent to which she is ultimately underexplored is one of the reasons why the second half of the film doesn’t work as well. While the first half of the film was about her and their blossoming relationship, the second half becomes much more about him and his view of her.

You begin to realize that Ally is ill-defined as a character when she undergoes a truly unconvincing and unnatural change as an artist. Somehow the feisty and natural singer-songwriter becomes the dime a dozen — from the perspective of the film’s main male character — dance-focused pop star, who, still, somehow becomes celebrated enough to be nominated for awards.

I think the final sequence of the film would’ve worked much better for me if Gaga’s character had had more depth, but I will also say that, even though I dislike the term, the final musical performance is Oscar-baity and the title of the final song is not just sad but also slightly manipulative. On another note, I would also like to say that I thought Cooper uses some painfully obvious and unsubtle imagery in the film’s first scenes. Look at the billboards.

Although I think the film is uneven and has character problems, I still highly recommend A Star is Born, which, all things considered, is an irresistible, audience-pleasing directorial debut for Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s A Star is Born is going to be a general audience favorite during awards season. It won’t just make you believe an ‘American Sniper’ can sing — you’ll believe ‘Lady’ can act.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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