Development hell is littered with victims and, for a time, it looked as though A Star Is Born might join the pile of broken bodies, with several huge-name directors, actors and singers linked with the project over the last decade.
This isn’t, wasn’t, a film to take on lightly. Presenting, as it does, a very particular weight, from its very particular history, to whoever did manage to haul it, still breathing, over the finish line. This is the fourth A Star Is Born to make it into the world and it’s George Cukor’s 1954 version starring Judy Garland that packed the greatest emotional punch. And it’s this one that 2018’s A Star Is Born shares most DNA with; the version brought to life by the perhaps-not-immediately obvious pairing of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
When we, and she, meet country star Jackson Maine (Cooper) — still packing out stadiums but, certainly, you feel, no longer at his best — he’s swollen, pale, doughy, his eyes swimming, the watery giveaway of a barely functioning alcoholic. In many fundamental respects, Cooper’s unrecognisable as the actor we know. And never more so than when he first speaks: his voice a couple of octaves lower than his natural speaking voice.
He’s immediately captivated by Lady Gaga’s Ally (as are we), when she appears in a drag bar performing ‘La Vie En Rose’ with painted black hair and stuck-on, super-arched eyebrows. So far, so Gaga. And herein lies the central question: can she, in her first feature, pull off the characterisation of a normal, insecure girl who, while deep-down sure of her talent, plays the comments of industry men — “you sound great but you don’t look so great” — on a loop in her head? Can she even remember that girl?
The live scenes are electric, a remarkable feat of both performance and filmmaking.
The answer is yes. She puts in a performance that is both compelling and well-crafted and actually, you presume, pulls on her own rise. She brings a startling naturalism and lightness of touch that is completely at odds with her public persona; an exquisite mixture of disbelief, cynicism, hope and tender vulnerability. Beneath the bravado and bolshiness lies the welts from previous rejections and disappointments; she tends to them at times and prods them at others, as her world changes beyond all recognition.
But there are, undoubtedly, moments when theatricality takes over — when she’s so comfortable in front of a big crowd that Ally is snuffed out and Lady Gaga sits straight-backed in her place. The spell is broken, momentarily. Beyond this, the live scenes are electric — they are some of the most believable, authentic, dynamic live performance scenes in cinema. A remarkable feat of both performance and filmmaking. While Gaga and particularly Cooper do much of the heavy-lifting, credit must be given to the editing job done by Jay Cassidy (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle).
Though the ‘star’ of the title is undoubtedly Gaga, the star of the film is undoubtedly Bradley Cooper. He’s astonishing as a man crippled by life-long emotional trauma — the death of his mother, addiction of his father and the debilitating tinnitus and hearing condition he’s had since birth — the clear and present pain sitting just behind his eyes, tucked in the base of his neck as it bows to put on his cowboy hat.
Ally is ill-equipped to deal with his drinking and the pain it masks (“You think he drinks a bit much?” says his brother Bobby, a phenomenal Sam Elliott, as he puts an unconscious Jackson to bed. “Sweetie, you have no idea”). But what’s clear is that Ally represents the most hope he’s had for years. And the real tragedy lies between the birth of that hope and its slow death as Jackson’s career takes him back down the throat of a bottle and Ally’s puts her on billboards astride LA.
Tonally, there are relatively minor stutters and bumps. Ally’s manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) is uncomfortably close to being a pantomime villain (with cut-to-fit British accent): moulding her into an artist that sees her shelve her integrity for hits and whispering darkly in Jackson’s ear. An SNL performance and Grammys scene are glaringly bright intrusions of modern reality into a film that decidedly, if not retro in feel, benefits from an evergreen visual palette. But minor they are.
A Star Is Born may be a remake, may even have had a tricky birth, but Cooper and Lady Gaga make the material feel fresh, urgent and full of soul. A film both for the ages and for 2018. And when the final emotional punch is thrown, you’ll be left reeling at the originality and heart on display.