A silver screen triumph about the fickle beast that is fame, A Star Is Born shows Bradley Cooper at his best and highlights the new talent of Lady Gaga.
It can be difficult to talk about a story which is so deeply needled into the veins of Hollywood as A Star Is Born without reference to its filmic heritage. Bradley Cooper’s version is the fourth iteration on the silver screen, preceded by projects reaching back to 1937, each peppered with names which are synonymous with tinsel town – Gaynor, Garland, Streisand. They all loosely follow the same narrative idea: a gargantuan performer discovers an immensely talented, aspiring young woman and uses his name to promote her to stardom, and in the process, they fall in love. However, as one star rises, the other falls, bringing to rise the central narrative conflict: can love survive the weight of celebrity and success? Invariably it cannot, leading to tragic consequences.
In his film, Cooper – in a career best performance, having also directed, produced, and contributed to writing the script and score – is joined by Lady Gaga as the two leads. Cooper portrays Jackson Maine, a rock star with a huge international following; and Gaga plays Ally, an unknown amateur who occasionally, after shifts as a waitress at a drag bar, mounts the sequined stage to perform for an eclectic audience of gays and drag queens. Maine, an alcoholic in search of some post-performance booze, happens upon one of Ally’s shows. Immediately infatuated with both the artist and her voice, he invites her to perform at his sold out gig the next evening, catapulting her towards celebrity.
Their subsequently triggered romance inevitably becomes entwined with questions of career success and higher ambition and is wonderfully paced towards a tragic, tear-jerking crescendo; and, to the credit of Gaga and Cooper, feels phenomenally organic. The importance of this cannot be understated, because with a story like A Star Is Born – where you have an international, grandiose pop star portraying an unknown amateur – any lack of authenticity will immediately breach the façade. Thankfully, with the addition of Cooper’s assured directorial hand, we’re drowning in it.
For a film which juggles such big themes – the overwhelming weight of celebrity, and on the other end of the scale, its power to emancipate; drug and alcohol addiction; the trauma of losing a father – it is remarkable how A Star Is Born feels more like a solemn, deeply moving indie ala Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester-by-the-Sea than a rip-roaring, bass-in-your-face concert flick. This is largely due to the more muted question of stardom’s tragic consequences than previous iterations, in favour of a deeper exploration into alcoholism and addiction.
Cooper’s lens remains invariably intimate, regardless of whether the setting is a concert stage or within a private jet – his aim not to capture the size of the crowd or the gratuitous rock star lifestyle, but the humanity behind it all. The songs are fantastic, and the sound design marvellous, but it is Cooper’s yearn to cut through the smokescreen of stardom, buoyed by inevitably Oscar-nominated performances across the cast, which makes his A Star Is Born entirely outstanding.
Not only is A Star Is Born a respectable addition to one of Hollywood’s great cinematic traditions – it is also, by a large measure, the best.