A STAR IS BORN (Directed by Bradley Cooper, 135 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC It’s been hard to ignore the buzz surrounding the latest incarnation of A Star is Born, which marks not only Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, but also the first starring role in a feature film for Lady Gaga. The pop icon had a rather successful transition from music to television taking home an Emmy for her work on American Horror Story, and this time she’s here to prove she can do it all and Cooper helps her get the ball across the goal line. His directing style oftentimes feels like he’s channelling early Cameron Crowe, with a deftness and confidence no audience has a right to expect from a first-time director, and the resulting film is the most heartbreaking romance you will see on screen all year.
With a Jim Morrison swagger and a rugged growl, Cooper conjures up a convincing Jackson Maine, a famous singer-songwriter in diminished capacity, struggling with both tinnitus and addiction. Cooper does all his own singing, and It took me a few minutes to to get adjusted to him dropping his voice a few octaves to pull off some of the soulful ballads. When we first meet Jackson it’s clear he’s been spiraling downward for some time now. Having drained all the booze in his limo, he stops at a drag bar for a refill. It’s here he happens upon Ally doing cabaret and somehow her voice shines a light through his darkness. There’s a charming matter of factness to the way he takes the young woman under his wing after that performance. The film is very careful with how it plays with the shifting power dynamics of their burgeoning relationship to assure you that they do actually care for one another and it’s not simply one attempting to take advantage of the other.
Ally quits her job to go on tour with Jackson, igniting a whirlwind romance with the singer while making a name for herself performing their collaborations on stage. In due time Ally lands a record contract, and her star rises as his begins to fade. His professional jealousy takes its toll on their relationship and hastens his race to the bottom of the bottle. While the story is an all-too familiar one, it’s the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga, along with the music they co-wrote, that takes it to new heights of emotional realism. There’s an intimacy between Cooper and Gaga — unforced and actual-seeming — that you simply can’t fake on screen.
A Star is Born is a tour de force directorial debut that channels Cooper’s off-screen struggles with addiction and sobriety that vibes deeply personal and painfully honest. It’s arguably the most revealing and vulnerable he has allowed himself to be on screen, resulting in his most nuanced and courageous performance to date. Gaga is a fierce delight with a mezzo-soprano that rattles the theater. Together they turn in what could well be the most electrifying performances of their careers in this gut-wrenching take on the agonies and ecstasies of stardom shot through with raw energy and gut-punch emotion that will wash over you song after song.