Twelve notes. That’s all you have in music before you’ve reached the end of an octave and begin to repeat or reuse the same tones. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is the fourth filmic iteration of the story of an aging alcoholic artist meeting a young talented woman, their tragic love story intertwined with her rise and his fall in the public eye. A personal passion project–Cooper directs, stars, and shares writing and production credits–this new iteration on a classic theme is akin to the pop music it both celebrates and critiques: it’s insanely likable, emotionally moving even when you know you’re being manipulated to feel, and strangely inspiring, despite its somewhat unsurprising premise and narrative arc. Like its hit song which will probably win the Oscar in 2019, this modern movie musical is far from shallow.
In an early scene, Cooper’s Eddie Vedder-esque Jackson Maine needs more booze, so he directs his driver to the nearest bar (a drag bar on karaoke night, it turns out). Sitting at the bar amongst the starstruck patrons, he suddenly finds himself starstruck as Ally (Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta) belts out La Vie en Rose with the gusto, fervor, and authenticity of a musical maven. It’s absolutely captivating, a frisson-inducing performance from Germanotta which keeps both us and Jackson riveted. He asks her out, listens to her story, shares an evening in a parking lot chatting together as two kindred spirits with a genuine connection. The way Cooper looks at Germanotta with his crisp blue eyes is the way anyone and everyone wants to be looked at–to be truly seen, not just gazed upon like an artifact or oddity, but noticed and adored because you simply are. They’ve got chemistry. He’s infatuated with her nose, the very one she says has kept her from pursuing anything further with her music.
When Jackson invites Ally to come to his next show, she’s initially hesitant. She’s been hurt before, and she doesn’t seem to be taken in by the stardom of Jackson’s aura. Yet she goes, and he pulls her on stage to sing a song she wrote (“Shallow”), and when she opens her mouth to sing, it is absolutely stellar (pun intended). I’ve not seen this sort of musical movie chemistry since John Carney’s Once in 2007.
Now, I’m a percussionist, a drummer–I had even planned on becoming a professional musician before my vocational calling shifted towards pastoral ministry. I pay careful attention to rhythm, the pacing and tempo of narrative shifts and swells. So please trust me when I say that the first act of A Star is Born has genuinely perfect tempo, hitting all the right emotional beats, culminating in Ally’s first on-stage performance with Jack. This moment is a marvelous scene, and one of the best I’ve seen this year. But the second and third acts are uneven and staccato, the pacing shifting suddenly after Ally and Jackson’s romance and musical partnership is established. It’s as if there are gaps in time and memory in the editing, like narrative blackouts. Where the first act takes place over the course of one enchanting evening, the remaining story skips and jumps through time like someone changing the radio station and starting a song partway through. It’s frustrating, even confusing at times, and it threatened to keep me emotionally disengaged. Yet I wonder if this is deliberate, if Cooper has edited the rhythm of the scenes around Ally and Jack’s relationship, especially Jackson’s spiral into addiction. When they’re apart or out of sync emotionally, the pacing is haphazard and distractingly off. But when they’re in harmony–both musically and relationally–well, it’s pure magic. As the pacing slows down to focus on Ally and Jackson together via long shots and close-ups, it’s richly affecting. But it’s not only Gaga and Cooper; Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle are great in supporting roles, emotionally effective with the small moments they’re given to complement the lead duo. I’d even be willing to say that in a long line of excellent performances, this is one of Elliott’s very best.
As Ally rises to pop stardom, Jackson’s drinking and drug addiction begin to take a toll. Committed to one another both musically and maritally, they have to navigate what happens when the person you originally fell in love with changes. He’s a bluesy rock-and-roll musician; she evolves into a pop icon (akin to the one Gaga is in real life). And this is where A Star Is Born might be distinct from its predecessors–it’s truly a love story, with the music fueling and complementing that romance, and with the music/entertainment industry as periphery to the central themes of commitment, sacrifice, and sincerity. Vivacious and affecting, A Star Is Born is the kind of film even the most cynical of filmgoers will find difficult to hate. This isn’t to say it’s a rose-colored romance; Ally and Jackson deal with some very serious issues in their relationship, not least of which is one partner deep in the shackles of addiction. But neither Ally nor Jackson seem primarily motivated by jealousy or fame; even when Jackson harshly criticizes one of Ally’s performances (on SNL with Alec Baldwin hosting), it seems more due a combination of alcohol and wanting the best for her, knowing that what she’s pursued might not be her true self, her true voice. It’s ultimately a film about authenticity and truth, what we do when we are given the responsibility to speak the truth to those who will listen, both concert-goers and lovers.
“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” repeatedly croons Jackson in a lyric almost too on-the-nose (ha!) if it weren’t so perfectly poignant. Cooper’s passion project has paid off, and Lady Gaga deserves all the awards coming to her. With a plethora of other shallow cinematic remakes/reboots of familiar stories released in recent years, A Star Is Born is truly fresh, enthralling, and authentically human–it’s a wonderful new melody from those same twelve notes.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1517451/