Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave’ explains Sam Elliott towards the end of A Star Is Born. ‘It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.’ The line is just shy of a wink at the audience, but it encapsulates exactly why first-time director Bradley Cooper’s take on the classic story is as effective as it is; the notes here are arranged with such power, vigour and emotional truth that it seems almost irrelevant to consider the previous three iterations.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a charming rocker who’s nightly bottle of whiskey drowns thoughts of his declining stardom. An unintentional foray into a drag bar crosses his path with part-time singer, full-time waitress Ally (Lady Gaga); the pair hit it off over a weird and wondrous night, propelling a romantic and musical partnership which brings Ally’s sensational voice into the limelight of this unimaginably Gaga-free world. The titular cosmic birth is set in motion, as turbulent as the ruthless pop industry – and Jackson’s lurking demons – may make it.
Avoiding the usual actor-to-director route of debuting with a low-key indie release, Cooper throws himself in at the deep end in tackling A Star Is Born. Yet, the result shows a perplexingly deft directorial hand. A sense of propulsion and energy permeating the wider narrative extends to the enthralling performance sequences; the camera swings and jolts between sweaty-faced performers as the audience’s flailing arms fill the background, all to an outstanding array of songs. Cooper finds an understated sensitivity in his acoustic numbers, while Ally’s introduction to the world in standout ‘Shallow’ makes for a bombastically breathtaking moment among many – although we never needed to be sold on Gaga’s immense talent.
These sequences combine with the often-leaping narrative to create an all-round breathless experience- one that is balanced against delicate and warm scenes between the two leads. Their chemistry sparkles, and Gaga absolutely shines as a nuanced, naturalistic actor with skills far beyond what her non-existent past filmography may suggest. Bradley Cooper serves himself just as well as director, providing a subtle, sensitive portrayal of addiction. You’d be hard pressed to find a better pair of lead performances this year.
It’s not all stellar, however. The film’s second half, defined largely by Ally’s struggle against the identity-compromising pop machine, left my eyes rolling. With Ally belting out lines about a potential lover’s perfectly-shaped ass, and her slimy British manager looming in the background, things become caricature-like in a way that betrays the film’s earlier enticing realism. Honest self-expression is valued by major-label pop now more than ever (think RCA’s latest signing BROCKHAMPTON, or the heart-on-sleeve ruminations on mental health delivered by Florence + The Machine).
It feels a little lazy that A Star Is Born relies on outdated tropes for a key chunk of its apparently contemporary reimagining. While the script goes in in less engaging directions, the standard of performances and zippy, enlivening direction make A Star is Born’s foreseeable array of Oscar nominations fairly difficult to disagree with.