So first off I have to confess that I have not seen a single one of the numerous other Star Is Born movies. I suspect that this will be true of many moviegoers who will nevertheless be drawn to this new version by the presence of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, so I feel pretty good about being able to offer the perspective of a critic who doesn’t bring in preconceived notions or love/indifference/hate for the previous films to color my reactions to this one. Perhaps I’ll give myself the project of watching all the others, seeing this one again, and then doing a massive compare-contrast. But for now: I come to 2018’s A Star Is Born totally fresh.
And... I absolutely love it. Adore it, in every way a movie can be adored. This is a MOVIE, by which I mean that it does all the things we want a movie to do when we sit down in the dark with it: A Star Is Born instantly sweeps us up in characters we immediately fall in love with. It is passionate in all ways. It is electric. There were moments when I cried and I couldn’t even tell you why I was crying, except that the emotion and life that the film is bursting with spilled over into me, filled me up, and then spilled out of me in those tears. (I am welling up again recalling that feeling.) It’s a perfect film: there is not the single tiniest element here that is out of place, and nothing is missing.
Movies like this are so rare, and so welcome.
The story is classic — obviously, since it keeps getting remade to mostly general acclaim. Superstar boy musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) meets talented but not-even-up-and-coming girl singer Ally (Gaga) and takes her under his wing, and then into his heart; she falls hard, too. Her career soars, thanks to their collaboration, while his sinks, thanks to his substance abuse. Part of what moved me so damn much is the feminist fantasy of their relationship: Jackson is a man who sees — truly sees — Ally, and truly hears what she has to say with her music. She’s gorgeous, of course, but that’s not why he falls in love with her. This shouldn’t feel like such a flight of impossible fancy, and yet there we are.
The music is extraordinary, and a character in itself. Jackson’s is a sort of rousing country rock, with a touch of Springsteen; he fills stadiums with worshipful fans, and gets recognized everywhere he goes. Ally’s music is... well, we don’t know much of what her music is when we first meet her, at the same moment he does: She is belting out Edith Piaf songs in a drag bar, just for fun, when he pops in for a drink after a show; later, when she shyly admits to being a songwriter, we start to hear her stunning ballads and, later still, some wild pop. All of the movie’s music (except for a few covers, like the Piaf) is original, and was developed by Cooper and Gaga in concert — pun intended — with the development of their characters. Which means that it doesn’t matter whether the styles of music here are to your usual taste. It is so keyed to Jackson and Ally — whom, recall, you have fallen instantly in love with — that you cannot help but love their music, too. (Other contributors to the movie’s music include Lukas Nelson, who also appears as a member of Jackson’s band; Diane Warren; Mark Ronson; and frequent Gaga musical partner DJ White Shadow. I will be buying the soundtrack the moment it goes on sale this Friday.)
We already know that Gaga can sing. As an actor in her first significant role (she’s had a few onscreen cameos before), she is a revelation: incredibly naturalistic, not a hint of artifice or discomfort. The screen loves her, and if she doesn’t love it, she is hiding it well — the title of this movie applies to her as well. Her chemistry with Cooper is extraordinary, that uncommon movie magic that goes a long way toward convincing you that what you’re watching is utter truth. We already know that Cooper can act. But can he sing? *swoon* He’s not only doing his own singing here, he’s doing it live on camera, not even lip-synching to prerecorded music; his voice is the stuff of musical megastardom. (Some people seem destined for fame no matter what they do. If Cooper had chosen music, he could have been a Jackson Maine.) Cooper is singing live, behind-the-scenes news informs us, because he wanted Gaga to do the same, because it’s just more real that way.
And Cooper got to make that decision because he also directed this marvel, his feature debut, and it’s absolutely impossible to believe that he has never directed a movie before. (His talent goes further: he also cowrote the screenplay, with Eric Roth and Will Fetters.) There are moments here that create enormous emotional power almost entirely as a matter of a directing decision: put the camera here to capture that for this particular effect. (There’s a zinger end to one scene that is seen from the back seat of a car, which is a wholly unexpected angle in context; the sucker punch of it has lingered with me since.) The best we can typically expect from inexperienced directors is that they just stay out of their own way, but Cooper has given us a movie that is beautifully directed yet never showy about it, and one that doesn’t look like a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before.
This Star Is Born is the kind of movie that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place, and the kind that will sustain you for the long drought until its like comes along again. I can’t wait to see it again.
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