A Star Is Born, it feels like this one has been a long time coming, doesn’t it? What started in 2011 as a Clint Eastwood directed picture starring Beyonce, has turned up on our cinema screens in 2018 as a Bradley Cooper directing/acting dual project with Lady Gaga in centre stage. Of course, that is on top of the fact that this is not the first, not the second, not the third, but the FOURTH iteration of a film narrative that began with Janet Gaynor in 1937, then Judy Garland in 1954, then Barbra Streisand in 1976. No pressure, Gaga, no pressure at all!
A Star Is Born tells the story Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a hard living, hard drinking superstar musician who, after a chance midnight meeting at a drag bar, begins a passionate and tumultuous romance with Ally (Lady Gaga), an unknown, immensely talented but timid singer-songwriter. Recognising the one in a million talent within her, Jackson guides Ally in to the limelight, but as her star rises, his own demons threaten to ruin both their professional and personal lives.
As you might expect from a story that has been told on three previous high profile occasions, 2018’s A Star Is Born doesn’t feel overwhelmingly fresh or innovative, but the beauty of the film is that it knows what it is doing and it does it very, very, very well. We are all familiar with this kind of narrative, tortured artists, seemingly star crossed lovers, highs and lows, rises and falls, but there is just as much value in being expertly told a familiar story as there is a completely revolutionary one.
The film isn’t is totally perfect, there are one or two moments that feel slightly too on the nose or contrived, but in terms of the bigger picture it absolutely connects on both of its key focal points. The love story between the two protagonists is one that feels deep, authentic and at times crushingly fated, whilst the soundtrack is one that I feel is destined to become part of the very top tier of movie musical achievement. The chosen conflicting genres of folk rock and chart pop bring the best out of both Cooper and Gaga, to a point where strategically placed songs within the narrative punctuate the plot more effectively than ten minutes worth of dialogue ever could.
Though it pains me to say it, some of my very favourite musicals in the world could be accused of being thread bare story exercises that hold purely as a vehicle for amazing songs, but something that A Star Is Born really does have going for it is its strong storyline outside of the fantastic musical numbers. It’s not difficult to understand why considering the very first iteration in 1937 isn’t even a musical. Like I said, there are certainly holes that you can pick in the film if you were so inclined, and it certainly might be a little too melodramatic for some people’s taste, but I’d be lying if it said that I don’t forgive it purely for the gift of the soundtrack alone.
As Ally, Lady Gaga gives a fine overall performance, but it is no surprise at all that she comes most to life during her musical performances. Given the context of Gaga’s own career, there is a degree of awkwardness as the character transitions from her country/folk/rock roots in to a manufactured pop star, a thread within the narrative that the film looks negatively upon, but none of that matters a damn thing when you hear the woman belting out songs like Shallow, Always Remember Us This Way and I’ll Never Love Again. They aren’t only stand out moments in the film, they are stand out moments in the entirety of her career. I might not be as completely captivated by the strength of her acting as some critics seem to be, but in the same breath, I can’t think of a single other current star that could play the part to the same effect.
As Jackson Maine, Bradley Cooper is something of a revelation. I’ve never seen him in this kind of role before, and even though most of the stand out numbers go to Gaga, I would go as far as saying that Cooper gives the better overall dramatic, immersive performance. The guy could release a country rock album tomorrow and give Tim McGraw a run for his money. The real magic occurs when the two actors are on screen together. Whether singing, flirting or fighting, Gaga and Cooper exude a sort of electricity that you can’t take your eyes off, and it’s exactly the sort of irresistible electricity that keeps toxic and foredoomed couples together.
There are a few stand out and fun supporting performances given by the likes of Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos and even cameos for RuPaul’s Drag Race favourites Willam and Shangela. They help to add quality to the extended universe of the film, but in all honesty, the picture lives and dies by it’s two central stars, and everything else fades in to the background. In a good way.
Overall, A Star Is Born is pretty much everything that I hoped and expected it to be. It’s been a long, long time since I went in to a movie musical with high hopes of real quality as well as just silly fun (probably La La Land), and if that 2016 masterpiece was a 10/10, this has to be a solid 8.5 to 9. An incredible directorial debut from Cooper alongside his leading performance, some directors would kill to have a tenth film as impressive. I have said here before and I’ll say it again, I’m a bastard for a musical. The more I think about this one, the more I can feel it creeping in to my top ten of the year.