Movie Review: A Star is Born
They don’t make them like they used to. You can practically hear the echoes being whispered through the pursed lips amidst wrinkled skin of those old enough to catch Wellman and Conoway’s giddy original “A Star is Born” at the matinee in 1937. Since then, the timeless tragedy of star-crossed lovers has been retold through the eyes of Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, and in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. You might be asking, “why make another one(?)… if we already know how the thing ends.”
First time director and longtime actor Bradley Cooper addresses this in a wonderfully meta and metaphysically poetic way. As Sam Elliot–in his scruffy Texas accent– describes music as a “series of variations on the 12 note scale…it’s the same story over and over… all an artist can offer the world is how we see those 12 notes”. Yes, the story is as old as the movies themselves. But Cooper’s offering is refreshingly original, a soaring lyrical triumph that is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.
You may be familiar with this love story: a wife’s career is paralleled by the death of her man’s. Bradley Cooper plays music monolith Jackson Maine, a country music sensation with a cowboy hat to hide his blonde rugged beard, rampant drunkenness, and tattered past. He is off to find a drink and stumbles into a neon back-alley drag bar. (Colors play a huge role here, with cinematographer Mathew Libatique ironically engulfing his stars in red white and blue hues).
We soon come to learn that Maine doesn’t just have a nose for cocaine, but also one for talent and beauty. Granted that even the hardest of hearts may swoon as Lady Gaga (Ally) performs “La Vie En Rose”, legs sprawled across the bar. Maine is no exception, and the eye-line-match-cut between lovers hasn’t been this intoxicating since “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Gaga may not quite reach Catherine Denevue’s effortlessness, and yet, she is nothing short of a discovery. Having already surpassed the edge of glory in the music world, she somehow remains convincing as a timid star in the making. Hinting that maybe Gaga’s meat dress days are behind her.
As with most actors turned directors, Cooper gives his cast meaty roles. There are, of course, the grand musical numbers in which the two showcase their talents behind the mic–all shot live to gain a sense of realism. It works. My heart melted the first time the two took the stage together, performing a number Ally came up with the day prior. Not just because the tune was lovely, but because in these two minutes we see Ally open up, gain confidence, and find love. (When she hits the high-notes be ready for goosebumps).
Through handheld close-ups and floating pans, every charismatic smile and nod from Cooper plays off the reserved stage fright of Gaga, as she slowly builds momentum into what Maine and the audience know will be a pop-icon. Intimate scenes carry a similar weight. As Maine’s career continues to vanish, Ally must take care of her drugged up husband around the house. It really is touching to see the two never leave each other’s side.
Cooper’s “A Star is Born” can be uncomfortably intimate, and he knows it. There is no playful sarcasm in its telling tale on Hollywood’s misconceptions. In an age where youth seek fame and glamour more than ever, many might be taken back by this modern day take on “American Idol” being Americas’ dream.
I found the first half to be breath of fresh air. An upbeat number playing to the discovery of lovers harmony. The second half, however, a moving look at our idols underneath the mask, or here, underneath the hat. We’ve seen rock stars hit rock-bottom before–they usually find it at the bottom of a bottle– but rarely does it connect in such an emotionally charged way. This is a testament to Cooper’s ability to humanize and flesh out his protagonists. And though it is hard for this writer to make peace with the ending, I have come to realize that sometimes beauty can hang in the darkest of places.