A Star is Born Review
The roar of a crowd is the first sound heard as Bradley Cooper’s much-anticipated directorial debut A Star is Born gets under way. As the screams from the audience swell, Jackson Maine (Cooper), the heavy-drinking and tinnitus suffering country musician, staggers on stage looking greasy and tired. He has an unplaceable charm to him as he bashes out the intro of one of many great songs played throughout the film's duration. During these first five minutes, the film expertly sets up Jackson’s character as captivating yet chaotic. Going from the stage to the street, desperately searching for another bottle to drink before he finds something, someone much more valuable.
It is Gaga’s Ally he discovers. He is entranced by her as she appears on a modest stage in a drag bar. From there, a romance blossoms between the two , each spilling secrets and song lyrics to the other. They're drawn together by an understanding about what it is to have something to say, through their music, and how hard it can be to have nobody there to listen. Underneath it all, however, is also an awareness of an imbalance of power between the two. To be with Jackson is to be on stage, exactly what Ally has always dreamed of.
After a strong - though somewhat generic - first act, the film opens up to comment about the nature of the music industry, alcoholism, and the effects these can have on one couple. The film leaves no room for ambiguity, Ally will simply put Jackson before herself, her career, and her happiness. It's not exactly a healthy relationship, but it's a realistic one depicted.
To praise either Cooper or Gaga more for their respective performance is to do a disservice. As Jackson, Cooper is undeniably exceptional; forever hiding his pain just a fraction behind his looks, allowing his suffering to seep through the cracks every now and then. Simply, it is transformative. Gaga too is stripped back and almost unrecognisable. Her performance is sensational and full of nuance. When taking to the stage as Ally, you believe her incredulity, her fear, and her joy. And when she opens her mouth to sing, belting out ‘Shallows’ (the sure-to-be favourite song of the film) there are chills, in spite of the fact that you are aware she can sing.
Authenticity is at the basis of both actor's performance; you don’t see Cooper or Gaga, you see Jackson and Ally. You see their strengths and flaws, individually and as a couple, to further heighten the emotionality and sense of realism offered by the film. A Star is Born constantly leads you to sympathise with Jackson and Ally, even in the moments of apparent success, however a slight misstep, perhaps, is that not enough is guided towards the latter.
A Star is Born is a confident piece of film, let alone as a directorial debut. The supporting cast is strong - in particular, Sam Elliott’s Bobby Maine who is Jackson's big brother/manager/carer whose subtlety is sublime - which only cements the foundations of the world created by Cooper. There are one or two weak points which stand out, Ally’s manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) is one. Obviously, reactions to the musical set pieces will vary depending on personal tastes, and the focus does swing more heavily to Jackson’s songs than to Ally’s.
It is, however, without question music which is wonderfully composed and captured through the cinematography of the concerts. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique finds the intimacy within the massive scale of live music, and in doing so lets the performances shine. Each song manages to carry the emotions of the film, and that is where it is strongest: it’s emotionality. Cooper has managed to make a story - that has been told three times before onscreen - feel new, relevant, and very very real.