Sending us off on a tour with Gaga and Cooper that thrives on its enjoyable and touching moments, A Star Is Born revisits a story about the cycle of fame that never gets old.
Just like the renditions of the movie that came before (the 1954 version told a movie star story, whereas the 1976 film indulged in the rock stardom), A Star Is Born is appropriately updated for AD 2018. There are glimpses at performances on YouTube that went viral, sneaky iPhone shots that will likely end up on social media later, pop lyrics that might or might not be the pinnacles of poetic expression and elaborate TV performances for primetime shows choreographed to the last move. These details might be deliberately refreshed, but the story at the heart of the film remains the same. Although the film focuses on the colossus that is the music industry and its workings, it isn’t difficult to see a much broader picture of showbusiness that borrows from the emotional engagement from its previous renditions. Taking on the roles of a writer and director of the film, Cooper is successful at paying attention to the currents that power the stardom machine.
From the moment we meet him, Jackson’s disenchantment with the world of showbusiness is evident, although he still holds onto the few precious pieces it dispenses for him. He reaches out for alcohol to drown his worries, sometimes passing out or revealing his lack of self-control. Despite the support from Ally, a singer he met on an alcohol-fuelled bender after his show and immediately clicked with, he spirals downward. Add a galloping hearing damage that threatens to cut his career short, and the remaining glimpses of hope he put in his passion fade away.
While talking to the budding singer for the first time, he argues with her insecurities. He tries to convince the indifferent girl her that everyone has something to say, but not everyone can capture people’s attention. However, his own motto turns against him as Ally’s career takes off. When he becomes aware of the spot he found himself in professionally, he gives her a subtle nudge. On a terrace that overlooks a billboard with her album cover perched over the city, he shares what he learned from his stint in the industry: people are listening, but they won’t be doing it forever, so make your message count. Between these two scenes and beyond, Cooper shreds his character’s self-confidence to pieces. The leading man sends Jackson into the battlefield of addiction, externalising the demons of substance dependence with body language. Conflicted and tangled in the war with his demons, Jackson might be a difficult hero to comprehend, but the actor lays his image bare for us to observe and sympathise with. He humanises his character by revealing his opinions and preferences from the very beginning instead of hiding them in the heavy clouds of his struggle and relying on the viewer’s empathy.
Although the leading man’s preparations helped him to transform into the washed-out country star, Lady Gaga leads the film with her incredible understanding of the role. She’s extremely vulnerable in her performance: the camera often focuses on her face, moves towards her eyes, captures the subtlest of facial expressions. Instinctively finding the right beats for her character, she masters the show she puts on for the fans but turns back to sensitivity when the lights go off. She’s astonishing as a small club performer, her popstar charisma dazzles with adequate energy, but when she sits down at the piano to write songs, her compassion and warmth remind us of who Ally truly is behind the star persona.
While the film is capturing showbusiness, it isn’t afraid to face the complexities of crippling addiction. It doesn’t spare us its real aspects, which ultimately leads to the climactic moment that kick-starts the domino effect of unforeseen consequences. But the tides of change, the overlapping series of events, the coincidences that raise people up and deliberate self-sabotaging choices that push them to the bottom give the story a distinctive flow that keeps the story exciting throughout. The raging feelings of two people emerge from this equation, asking us about the cost of maintaining fame, the capricious fans who can destroy careers without any intention of looking behind the scenes, and the sacrifices that are required on the road to nailing that one chance when it comes along.
The film uses the music to capture live performances rather than musical numbers. And it’s a real delight: these sequences have the look and feel of a gig footage, with the camera focusing on the raw, powerful emotions of the musicians. Ally’s first performance and her connection to the audience that listens to her, then her onstage duets with Jackson that capitalises on close-ups, and her TV performances later interconnect the quality of watching a concert with subtle peeks behind the scenes – all of these make sense in terms of the narrative and make the most of the terrific vocal performances of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. The singer’s rendition of La Vie En Rose throws us back into our seats with its magnetism and astonishing vocals, striking Shallow will likely become a talent show staple, the rendition of Pretty Woman culminates in a heart-breaking scene, while Maybe It’s Time ruptures with its stripped-back sound that carries a prophetic heaviness.
Turning the wheel of fame that raises the hopefuls up and crashes them under its weight, A Star Is Born reincarnates the story but keeps its heart with the elusive dreams and crushing pains that pave the two-way road to success. The electric chemistry between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper and their artistic sensibilities make the spectator shed a tear or two, and the songs they perform strike you at the heart for good.
A Star is Born opens in the UK on the 3rd of October 2018.