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When I became aware of the impending release of Bradley Cooper’s rendition of “A Star is Born” a few weeks ago, I decided to use the occasion to screen the three previous versions of the classic Hollywood tale. The first two films (starring Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland) graced the screen many years before I was born, and I missed the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson vehicle out of simple teenage indifference.
I thought it might be fun, perhaps even instructive in a generational mores sort of way, to set aside a day to binge-watch the first three movies and then compare and contrast each film’s interpretation of the now-familiar story of an established-but-fading performer discovering and falling in love with a young, unknown talent, and their subsequent nurturing the young performer to stardom while the seasoned performer’s own star fades due to drugs, alcohol and insecurity. Unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented me from having the “A Star is Born” marathon, so I attended the screening of the newest incarnation completely cold – without benefit of a trailer – and only the sketchiest knowledge of the storyline. In the end, none of this mattered.
“A Star is Born”– as produced, co-written, and directed by Bradley Cooper (the key grip job was already taken) is a breathtaking revelation. Virtually every aspect of this highly entertaining film brims with surprise and wonder – and a genuine love of music and that place in our souls from whence it comes. Filmmaking – the actual physical, psychological, creative and collaborative efforts required to make a film — is an extraordinarily difficult art to render well. It’s hard work even to make a bad film – even one with the best of intentions.
Bradley Cooper, the actor, has demonstrated his growth and maturity in front of the camera in a number of recent Oscar-nominated performances (“Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle”, “American Sniper”), so it’s in keeping with that trend that his performance here as Jackson Maine, a boozing, pill-popping country-rock star at the pinnacle of his career would be among his finest to date. Cooper disappears into Jackson Maine – voice and all – as completely as the character of Jackson Maine disappears into the embodiment of his half-brother and long-suffering manager, played by Sam Elliott in what might be his best work.
It’s Bradley’s Cooper’s work here behind the camera as producer and director that is most impressive. In addition to writing several of the film’s songs, he has coaxed magnificent performances out of the entire cast, which includes Stefani Germanotta (known professionally as Lady Gaga), Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Ron Rifkin, and the aforementioned Sam Elliott. Everyone here is on top of their game; including Cooper himself.
In the film’s opening sequence, he chooses to present most of the concert footage from his character’s on-stage perspective, giving us an objective view of his performing world and his continuing on-stage battle with his addictions and tinnitus. We don’t see what the audience sees (and hears). What we get is this performer’s aural and visual perspective, and it is at once thrilling and frightening.
One night after a show in Los Angeles, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) goes off in search of a drink. He disappears into the first bar his driver can find, a drag bar where he meets Ally, a nightclub singer (Lady Gaga). He is mesmerized by her obvious talent, and he insists she join him for an evening of music, bar-hopping, wound-dressing, and self-discovery. It isn’t long before the grizzled rock star has fallen in love with Ally. He takes her on the road, and gives her the opportunity to share her songs and her voice with his audience. In time, they marry, and Ally’s star begins its ascent while Jackson falls deeper into his addictions.
Much has been made of Gaga’s screen debut. She demonstrates she isn’t a singer moonlighting as an actor. She is an actor. Period. (My movie companion, unaware of Gaga’s involvement in the film, leaned over to me in the dark and whispered: “Who is that? She’s great!” Her delight upon seeing Lady Gaga’s name during the credit roll was one of the film’s great pleasures for this reviewer.) Cooper also impresses as the singer-songwriter, Jackson Maine. His band is played by Lukas Nelson and The Promise of the Real. In interviews, Cooper has joked that the songwriting process continued throughout the shooting of the film, and that while he originally envisioned Jackson Maine as a country musician, the sound of the songs and the band migrated toward a more rock and roll approach, and if they had continued writing and shooting much longer, they might have ended up as a heavy metal band.
Ultimately, the success of this film, artistically and commercially, rests with the quality of the love story. Do our lead actors have true onscreen chemistry? Fortunately, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have it in spades. Emotionally, nothing is forced between their characters. The relationship is allowed to develop organically. We fall in love with Jackson and Ally as they fall in love with each other.
At one point in the film, Jackson Maine questions his creative protégé about whether she still has something to say, artistically speaking. An audience will know when you’re lying to them. If you want to stick around for a long time, you must tell them the truth. In his version of “A Star is Born”, Bradley Cooper has proved he has something to say. He’ll be around for a while.