OnScreen Review: "A Star is Born"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Toward the end of A Star Is Born, one character says to another, “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave - 12 notes and the octave repeat. It's the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That's it.” It’s a meta line of dialogue from the third remake of the film (fourth if you count 1932’s What Price Hollywood?). This particular remake has been in the works for a few years now, initially with Clint Eastwood attached to direct and with Beyoncé to star at various points. Every couple of decades, this film seems to get taken down off the shelf and repackaged for a new generation and an artist offers the world how they see that same story told over and over.

It’s a classic, tragic love story about the rise and fall of fame for two people, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), an artist on the decline that discovers a young talent singer, Ally (Lady Gaga). An instant connection is formed between them after a chance meeting, Jack eventually brings her on the road with him, and they collaborate on songs. Before too long, she is in more and more demand with a record deal, while his years of hard living on the road with booze and drugs begin to catch up with him.

The film also represents the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper. In some ways may seem daunting and bold to tackle something with as much history behind it as a remake of A Star Is Born in your first film as a director, but I think this is actually a pretty smart project for him to do it; it’s a familiar story told in big brush strokes and has proven to resonate with audiences in the past. As far as debuts go, this is a strong statement as he proves himself very capable.

More important than Cooper’s directorial debut, though, is what is in front of the screen, which is an impressive performance from both Cooper and Lady Gaga. Both effectively portray the period in life their characters are in. Jackson Maine has a kind of weariness to him, but he is also comfortable with his celebrity or at least made peace with not having any peace. Shown glimpses of what he has to deal with on a daily basis and also faced with steady progression of tinnitus slowly robbing him of his hearing, it’s not hard to understand why he finds solace in a bottle of either pills or alcohol.

It’s also clear as day why he is immediately taken with Ally, who he meets in a drag bar. He is mesmerized by her talent and she is someone he finds beautiful beyond looks. A great early scene that becomes a regular callback for them throughout the film is just him talking about how much he loves her nose, which she hates. As he tells her, it takes more than talent to make it, it’s whether or not you have talent and have something to say that people want to hear. One night together is enough to convince him that she has something to say. She becomes a jolt of life to him.

While so much of the trappings of fame and being on tour are old hat to Jack, everything is overwhelming to Ally, who needs to utmost coaxing to finally step out on stage with him and perform. It’s an electric scene where she lets it go and belts it out, and yet is still at times covering her eyes in disbelief at the moment. The business side of the music industry soon comes into play, and she learns that it’s more than just writing lyrics, but also about performing (with dancers). As this is all likely familiar territory for someone like Lady Gaga, she is able to recreate these moments behind the scenes in a recording studio, on a photo shoot, or backstage during a performance. She gives a vulnerable performance throughout, brought into a whirlwind of a life by Jack, who may not be stable enough himself to be someone she can rely upon in the midst of it all. But the one thing he definitely can be is a cautionary tale to her, and they both seem to find something they need in one another, and the chemistry between the two leads definitely helps carry things.

The songs are strong and thematically relevant to the story being told. The cinematography is terrific; capturing the look and feel of life on the road and the perspective shots during performances makes the stage feel vast and the people a sea in front of them. It’s a visually rich film with several shots that will linger in your mind. While I mostly fell for the films charms, there was something about it that held me back slightly from full embracing it. Perhaps it’s how outsized things get in the third act, the decisions that are made in how things deteriorate for Jack that didn’t entirely sit well with me as there’s a publicly embarrassing moment that’s a bit over the top. But the final closing moments of the film are actually near-perfect.

A Star Is Born hits almost all the right notes, only missing a few minor ones here or there. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper make a great combination on screen and it is an impressive directorial debut from Cooper. The music is expertly woven into the fabric of the film, telling the story of these almost-literally star-crossed lovers. It has the look and feel of a crowd pleaser that is also sure to generate several Oscar nominations and maybe a few wins.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars