A Star is Born opens with a shot of Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine downing some pills before launching into a set with his band onstage. That stripped-bare sense of economy in the storytelling (“Here’s a rock star with a drug problem”) extends throughout the film, as if director Cooper were obliquely acknowledging the fact that we’ve all seen this story before – literally. The love story that unfolds isn’t over-analyzed or over-articulated. We don’t really hear why Jackson immediately falls for Lady Gaga’s Ally after seeing her perform in a drag bar. And Ally never really voices why she fell so quickly for a man who was nothing but a collection of red flags. We don’t have to know. That economy of choice (or choice of economy) on Cooper’s part speaks well of the film as a whole, which combines that freshly modern approach in storytelling with moments of such emotional grandeur or cinematic wonder that they call to mind the very best of classic Hollywood cinema.
The structure and rhythm of the film is fairly basic: intensely, almost embarrassingly intimate scenes with one or both of the leads interspersed with concert footage and singing performances. There’s a bit of a sag in the middle (after they fall in love but before things start getting seriously tragic) when this rhythm becomes more apparent, but the insane chemistry the two leads have is not to be shrugged at or denied. They are simply electric together, from their very first interaction (which is wordless) to their very last (which will not be spoiled here). The entire film rests on Gaga and Cooper, both of whom more than meet the challenge. Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, Gaga truly is incandescent and we can’t recall a cinematic debut at this level of star turn since Whitney Houston opened her mouth to voice Dolly Parton’s lyrics in The Bodyguard. Gaga lands like a cinematic bomb. More apt a comparison: Gaga’s sweet, funny, bumbling, insanely talented fast-talking girl with the voice of a mountainside has more than a little bit in common with the young Streisand and Minelli – and Cooper makes some fairly clear cinematic comparisons to drive that point home, from a drag bar number that could’ve come straight out of Cabaret to the constant framing of Gaga’s nose, both on screen and in the dialogue, to the sudden shift toward full-on divahood by the end. The final scene was as classic as classic old Hollywood gets. You could’ve plopped Garland or Streisand right down into it and shot it as written. We truly don’t mean to bring up the previous versions or actresses so much. This film and Gaga’s performance are very much their own things, rendered in a manner that feels utterly timeless. But the grandeur of the film – not in amazing art direction or costumes or even operatic moments, but in the sweep and intensity of emotions and how they tie directly to performance and music – that’s some seriously old school Hollywood stuff. It’s impossible not to see bits and pieces of former diva performers whose voices overcame Hollywood’s need for them to be flawlessly beautiful.
Cooper shouldn’t be given short shrift here as an actor. We figured his Sam Elliot impersonation would get on our nerves sooner rather than later but he slips into it fairly comfortably and it really didn’t feel like a performance or affectation. Speaking of which, Sam Elliott gave an incredibly tender and emotional performance utilizing a script that maybe didn’t offer him enough to work with. We wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he got a supporting actor nomination out of it. As for Cooper, we were a bit blown away by the character’s pain and vulnerability; even more blown away by how besotted he is by Ally, all the way through, even when things get ugly. There’s something in both leads’ performances that has them stumbling and unsure around each other that goes from charmingly flirtatious in the beginning to subtly dysfunctional at some point down the line.
It’s a bit rare to see love portrayed this way: as something terrifying, even well after you’ve settled into it. Ally and Jackson talk over each other warily, each eyeing the other one after they say something, waiting with anticipation for the other’s response or reaction. They are, quite simply, completely enraptured by each other. And while it’s usually pretty annoying to be around two people who only have eyes for each other, these two just happen to be insanely charismatic, talented and beautiful in a messy, real-world sort of way. Every scene is a flirt session, some charming, some dysfunctional and some downright alarming.
Which brings us to the next point, while there’s no question that they’re super-hot for each other and there are at least two scenes with Gaga naked, there’s a certain old-school demureness to how the sexual side of their relationship is portrayed. We get the sense Cooper wanted their relationship to play out almost entirely in words and song, rather than in liplocks and embraces (although they really aren’t lacking here). This is part of why it’s simply pleasurable to watch Ally and Jackson together; because you’ll get romantic tension, banter, and the occasional musical performance from two people who are nearly addicted to each other, they’re so in love. Sex scenes are pretty dull in comparison and onscreen, aren’t nearly as intimate as two people inches away from each other, breathlessly waiting to hear what the other one’s going to say or do next.
The look and feel of the film is intimate and timeless all the way through. Until characters started pulling out smart phones to watch YouTube videos, we weren’t even sure it was set in the present. There’s very little of the grandiose rock star lifestyle depicted; lighter than expected on the penthouse suites or beach mansions. Instead, the homes are small, cluttered and woodsy, filled with books and musical instruments, food and banter. All the better to jar the audience when the film cuts to one of its many arena musical performances. There’s a clear line, emotionally, visually, and aurally, that separates the life on stage from life itself. Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique keep the camera tight on the leads when they’re intimate with each other and swing wide when they’re on stage, constantly driving home the inherent tension in their lifestyle and relationship.
We could go on (we haven’t even mentioned how RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Shangela and Willem deliver some of the biggest laugh-getters in the film), but we’ll wrap this up. A Star is Born is sensitively, maturely and adeptly directed by Cooper, with moments of high drama and grandeur interspersed with moments of intimacy and emotional intensity, all delivered perfectly by a uniformly excellent cast, with Lady Gaga leading the way in a performance that will go down in cinematic history as one of the all-time great debuts. A Star is Born is American mainstream cinema at its very finest.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]