Review Date: 12/3/2018
Rating: 4/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
Fantastic acting and phenomenal music elevate a muddled story with a well trodden plot from merely ok to truly great.
I struggle a lot with films about rock stars because they’re basically always the same movie every single time. Someone talented struggles, eventually finds fame, struggles with balancing said fame with their off-stage personal life, turns to substance abuse, has a fall from grace and an optional post substance abuse resurgence. It is a tried and true formula seen in such films as Almost Famous, This is Spinal Tap, Get Him to the Greek, Bohemian Rhapsody and many others. What is interesting about A Star is born is that we are told this “Rock Stars’ Journey” - to plagiarize from Joseph Campbell - out of order, simultaneously viewing the rise and the fall arcs in tandem, almost like a musically inclined version of Memento.
I Feel like that may spoil the plot, but honestly, no one is watching this one for the story. That is truly a good thing because this movie feels like it had 4 very different movies it wanted to be, and much of its bloated run time staggers drunkenly between each like its star Bradley Cooper’s performance - Cooper also directed and co-wrote, more on that later - as Jackson Maine, an over the hill country music singer battling a bevy of inner demons ranging from alcoholism to tinnitus to chronic depression. Is it a love story? An exploration of the personal cost of fame? A discussion on substance abuse and/or depression? a musing on the difference between “true” and “commercial” art? A Star is Born touches on all of these things, but suffers somewhat from never fully exploring any of them. I feel a tighter thematic focus would have yielded a better, more cogent film narrative, but given the other things this movie has going for it I suppose that was hardly the point.
Turning to the merits, I’ll begin with the acting, which truly is amazing. the star-studded cast (pun intended) delivers on all fronts with no discernible weak links. The titular “star” is played by Lady Gaga, who delivers a nuanced, powerful performance as Ally, a young and at first undiscovered singer/song-writer who falls for Bradley Cooper’s over the hill rock star performance. Having seen other pop stars try their hand at acting (looking at you Britney Spears), I was not expecting much from Gaga, but she floored me. I remember turning to my wife in the theater and whispering “who knew Lady Gaga could act?” Truly, "if her “something to say” as a singer ever dries up, Gaga could have a healthy 2nd act on the big screen.
Cooper too is phenomenal, delivering a character so world weary he literally buckles under the weight of his own life. He mumbles and stumbles from scene to scene in a performance that never feels forced and could be over-much in the hands of a less skilled actor. The chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is palpable and you never struggle to understand why they fall for each other, nor do you fault them for staying together through the worst of their relationship’s tumultuous path.
As I mentioned, the supporting cast is also excellent, with a strong performance from the always great Sam Elliott and a short yet powerful turn from Dave Chapelle, who’s monologue is so on the nose I’m not sure he didn’t deliver it when he thought the cameras weren’t rolling. These performances were all aided by the interesting directing choices made by Cooper. The movie is shot through a surprising number of extreme close ups. The effect is to render a story of stars in the limelight through an extremely intimate lens (puns intended). This decision required the stars to deliver performances in a way that modern film making sometimes shies away from, but also served to cause the audience to empathize, eve if only subconsciously, with the protagonists. The effect is to show - not tell - us that fame is a scary, alienating thing in which the star feels cut off from the people constantly surrounding them. Lady Gaga even comments on this in her first interaction with Cooper, who is so withdrawn into himself he reflexively changes the subject whenever she asks him personal questions about himself.
Lastly, I’ll discuss the music. I suspect that much of this movie’s success is due to the raw talent exhibited on stage, both from lady Gaga and her unbelievable, if well known, voice as well as from Cooper himself, who performed much of his own songs. The musical styles range from folk to country to rock to pop, and all are truly powerful in their own way. With Lady Gaga and the son of Willie Nelson co-writing the majority of the track list I suppose this should be no surprise, and yet I found a few tracks in particular, such as “Shallow” to be truly moving.
So, in summation, while A Star is Born won’t be making of my as-yet unwritten Top Ten lists, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience with a welcome directorial debut from Cooper and a delightfully surprising acting debut from Gaga. What I find myself most excited about is what each of them “have to say” next.