A Star is Born merits its title, yet it perhaps should adopt the plural form. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and Lady Gaga’s maiden lead role combine to create an intimate, breath-taking saga which plucks at the heat-strings as readily as Jackson Maine (Cooper) plays his guitar.
A soaring re-imagination of a Hollywood Fairytale (this is the fourth version of A Star is Born), this iteration couches its music in a modern setting, but speaks to classic themes of integrity, sacrifice and the power of honest expression. The story sees ageing rocker Maine captivated by the rising star of Ally (Gaga), a woman with a dream, if not the confidence to pursue it. As their fortunes entwine, success and failure come screaming into view.
In a film fixated on different forms of expression, it’s fitting that Cooper’s lens rarely leaves the faces of its leads. For his part, Cooper gives a career-best performance, his eyes flitting from doleful to hopeful. Almost within every scene, there is a constant battle between optimism and defeat. For Maine, you get the distinct impression that Ally is the personification of hope.
Within minutes of the film starting, we are shown vital parts of Maine’s character. The circles of addiction he finds himself in are amplified by the disorienting nature of the musical world he inhabits. The music is deafening, the lights swirling and the audience febrile. Maine’s tenderest moments come when he’s away from the noise. Times where it’s just him and the guitar form precious, peaceful vignettes. The desire to be seen frankly, without filters or distractions, drives the film’s narrative.
If Jackson’s story is told through his eyes, then Ally’s is reflected through her voice. It’s no great shock to say that Lady Gaga sings superbly throughout, but she uses her obvious range in nuanced ways. She knows when to reveal her true talent as Ally, and how to make the song fit the narrative. Her versatility as an artist lends itself almost perfectly to acting. The notion of artists fighting to preserve their integrity against outside forces can seem trite, yet in Gaga’s hands in particular it feels acutely personal. Indeed, though this is Ally’s story, it is unsurprising that Gaga is able to exact such emotional precision and connect with her characters struggles.
The music, written specifically for the film, captures essences of the story beautifully. Acting as an elegant framing device for the story to develop, the bleed from real-life onto the stage becomes increasingly pronounced. This proven no more so than with the film’s closing number. The film earns its climax by knowing how and when to play its emotional cards. There are few, if any, moments of overwrought drama, yet this does not deprive the film of heft. It should be noted just how laconically funny it is too. The ensemble cast bring warmth and levity, while Maine’s elder brother Bobby (a terrific Sam Elliott) brings a layer of terse, familial gristle. These components both ground and elevate a story which is, to all intents and purposes, a fairytale.
It’s this notion of balance which is so impressive for a directorial debut. In the hands of its leads and director, A Star is Born manages to be both rhapsodic and meditative, a heady mix of chest-swelling emotion and moments of eye-glazing contemplation.