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Movie Review: "A Star is Born" Indeed, and it's Bradley Cooper the Director



A STAR IS BORN
Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, 
Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron
Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters
Directed by Bradley Cooper

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs

Out of Four

I was less than thrilled when I heard that Hollywood had plans to make yet another version of A Star is Born. It's been done to death, and in terms of Kris Kristofferson's great cinematic triumphs, the last version doesn't quite rank up there with his classics like Heaven's Gate and Convoy.

The familiar story of an established superstar who discovers a diamond in the rough and brings her into his world, only to have her shine so brightly that he is quickly eclipsed, can be quite compelling or quite soapy depending on how it is handled. It really depends on balancing that electrifying, larger than life quality that defines stardom with a down to earth humanity that the audience can relate to and care about outside of the musical numbers.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga light up the screen in A Star is Born.
Images Courtesy Warner Bros. 

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking country rock musician. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a former waitress who works a soul crushing job at hotel (The choice to have Ally singing Judy Garland as she walks through the parking garage leaving work in the title shot perfectly sets the tone, and you know you're in for something special from that moment.) Jackson goes looking for a bar late at night after a big concert and ends up watching a monthly drag queen talent night. But one performer attracts his attention, partially because unlike the other "girls", she was born this way (rimshot). Ally used to work at the club as a server, the other performers are so fond of her and her voice that they let her be the exception to the rule and crash their show once a month, and she kills it with a sultry yet soulful rendition of "La Vie En Rose." Jackson is instantly enamored, and he goes back stage to meet her, talking her into having a drink with him, which leads to a ride in his limo and a night of talking, and eventually singing together in a convenience store parking lot. As it turns out, Ally is more than just a singer, she is quite the songwriter, though her insecurities about her perceived less than classically beautiful appearance has caused her not to pursue a career.  Jackson tells her that she is beautiful (he's right) and that more importantly, she has a voice and something to say. This leads to him dragging her on stage and into his life, and the sparks between them in both settings are undeniable.

A songwriter is born.
(Images Courtesy Warner Bros.)

There is every reason why this should not play as anything more than a contrived romantic melodrama, but it rises far above its predictability and schmaltz thanks to the artistic passion of those involved, first and foremost first time director, co-writer and leading man Bradley Cooper. There is simply no way to describe his work without using superlatives like inspired, mesmerizing, a revelation and many others that make it sound like I'm desperately trying get my blurb on an ad for the film. Cooper has always been an actor who throws himself into every project with everything he's got and then some, but with his level of obsessive commitment driving every aspect of the film this time around, it becomes an artistic labor of love. Cooper the director is as in love with Lady Gaga the actress as Maine is with Ally, and he gets a raw and stunningly natural performance out of her that plays like it was effortless but surely was the result of a lot of work from both of them (and if you can hear her sing without falling in love with her on some level yourself, you aren't going to enjoy this film because you probably don't like much of anything.). His own performance (including his wonderfully sincere singing voice, which brings to mind John Fogerty and even Bruce Springsteen, among others) is a magnificent transformation to the point that I struggled to remember who I was watching, and I've been as a fan since his days on Alias (which he lovingly references by casting fellow alumni Greg Grunberg and Ron Rifkin in small but memorable roles.). And his visually poetic style (ably backed up by the legendary Matthew Libatique's gorgeously atmospheric cinematography) is a surprise even with the hype this has been getting: there's an indescribably wonderful moment during the night that Jackson and Ally meet where we get to look on her through his eyes, and I don't just mean a simple P.O.V. shot. Cooper somehow puts us right inside Jackson's head and heart, and it's as if time stands still, and that lovestruck moment when you first realize that you are looking upon the most beautiful face you will ever see has never been captured more perfectly.  Cooper' matches that with his masterful, controlled yet never controlling collaboration with his ensemble (Andrew Dice Clay and especially Sam Elliott are clear standouts as Ally father and Jackson's older brother), and between the two elements he even may beat out John Krasinski as  the most exciting actor/director since Ben Aflleck (and neither Affelck, Krasinksi, Costner or Gibson ever directed themselves in a performance like this one.).  There's no other way to put it: Cooper emerges as an absolute a rock star in every sense of the term. 

It's important to note that this a heavy, emotional and at times very depressing film. Maine's addictions, fuelled by a lot of unresolved anger from a troubled upbringing, are starkly portrayed, though Cooper avoids the excessive harshness of films like Requiem For A Dream, recognizing that this is first and foremost about the characters. But there are some disturbing themes and images that may hit harder than you expect. SPOILER ALERT: I generally don't do trigger warnings, but if you have seen previous versions, you know what is coming at the end, but as someone who knew it was coming but found it much more brutally honest and brilliantly staged than I expected. As someone who has dealt with suicide in my life (both of loved ones and my own battles with coming close), it hit unexpectedly close to home for me and I was up all night and it's still in with me a week later.

SPOILER OVER

A Star is Born won't quite be my number one for the year (it's still behind at least Won't You Be My Neighbor? Three Identical Strangers and BlackkKlansman),  but it succeeds at everything it aims to accomplish, and will stick with me for a very long time. And it while it's not a musical in the breaking the fourth wall sense, it is close enough to being one (with a soundtrack that will break probably the Internet with downloads) to signify that the genre is becoming a staple of awards season again.


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