A Star is Born
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a washed-up musician, with a drinking problem, on a downwards spiral. He meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a singer performing at a drag queen burlesque showcase. They fall in love and start sharing music together. Jackson pulls Ally onto stage to perform a song they workshopped together and a music icon is born. This film follows the rise a pop star Ally, as well as how her transformation affects her relationship with Jackson.
I am a music movie junkie. I’ll admit it. For me music has always been such an emotional and visceral medium. I get too caught up in the feelings and the emotions to really critically process what songs are “saying.” No surprise some of my favorite genres and artists are instrumentally focused. I approach film completely differently. I engage with narrative and characters. I think about what a screenwriting is trying to say. I anticipate what a director is trying to show. The actor’s emotional portrayal affects me. Put music through the prism film and I am all in.
I become attached to artists by their connections to my favorite movies. I am now a massive Johnny Cash fan because of Walk the Line. I discovered I love 60’ds folk such as Peter Paul and Mary or Bob Dylan because of Inside Llywen Davis. John Carpenter turned me onto synthy electronic from the 80ds. It is in the larger scope of film that I find the narrative threads in music. It is in dramatic arcs that break out into songs that I find what someone is trying to say. Hurt by Johnny Cash is so much more powerful once you see his wife leave him and the drug addiction he succumbed to in Walk the Line. Music in movies becomes a kind of magical time capsule that transports me back to the narrative beat in a film. It brings me right back to what I was thinking while I was watching. What I was feeling. No other medium can do that for me, but it is always their relationship that unlocks music for me.
All of this is a long preamble to say A Star is Born was made for me. I saw this trailer leading up to the release no less than 20 times. A lot of it was in because the film had an impressive. Marketing budget. Some of it was because I fetishistically watched it again and again. I literally had the show stopper track “Falling” stuck in my head before I had seen the movie. Before I had heard the whole song. The second I saw this trailer it became my most anticipated film of this year and boy it did not disappoint.
Don’t Worry! We will get to the director/writer/star. I literally cannot go a second more without focusing on Lady Gaga. Her performance in this movie is a revelation that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. But first a quick history on me and Lady Gaga.
I was a die-hard Lady Gaga fan. I grew up in a rich, white suburb that still had presumptions of being a farm community (although most of my classmates lived in $350,000 homes and drove more BMW than tractors). Wisconsin wasn’t exactly a hip place to be, but I was counter-culture. Non-conformist. Middle School was filled with black hair dye, flippy bangs, and My Chemical Romance. Lady Gaga was a revelation to me. She was my first real exposure to the modern LGBT community. My and my best friend bonded over a love of her. She took this weird, “darker side of the tracks” aesthetics that I gravitated towards and told me to love and accept who I was. The main message of emo music was: “life sucks” and “hate yourself.” Gaga took that dark twisted perspective and told me to love myself because I was “Born this Way.” I later learned in my theatre training that I was into performance art, Avant Garde art, and genuinely weird stuff. Lady Gaga wasn’t exactly on the cutting edge of weird, but it was pretty out there for Wisconsin.
As I grew and bloomed into my artistic endeavors, Lady Gaga began to fade as a prominent force in my life (it didn’t exactly help that Artpop was rough). Instead of devouring any and all info about her I became cursorily aware. She was on American Horror Story. She removed all the crazy stage antics and did a more rootsy album (Joanne). She was in the Superbowl. It wasn’t until the trailer for A Star is Born that I was grabbed with the same pull from when I was first drawn to her. To use a line from the movie: “She had something to say.” It was real. And beautiful.
I may have been lapsed as a fan, but I know the fairy tale/reality of Gaga’s rise. She played clubs all over New York. She was this dynamite pianist with unmatched vocals. Nobody listened or cared. She unleashed the weird and then everybody started paying attention. A Star is Born semi-biographically mirrors this with Ally. We watch her transform from being a performer with something to say to a brand with something to sell. The hardest part of this transition is watching the spark between Cooper and Gaga fade as she becomes something that he doesn’t love.
Gaga’s performance is amazing because she throws herself into it all the way through. When she is performing on SNL or at the Grammy’s she is still giving just as much energy and passion as she does in a parking lot outside a Walmart at 3am. Over the course of the movie you literally watch her soul get ripped out of her own music. The high level of performance and quality from Gaga makes it that more obvious and painful.
Gaga has the performance chops to pull off singing on camera, but her acting more than meets expectation as well. Cooper has thrown some challenging material at her and she sells the hell out of it. I think the most impactful part of her acting though is the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. The way these two look at each other will melt the coldest heart. You see them see each other which is incredibly rare. Gaga is a gift on screen and this performance more than matches the singers that came before her with Streisand and Garland.
Silverlining’s Shot Script
It has been a pretty remarkable year for actors turn directors. Jonah Hill has Mid90s. John Krasinski has A Quiet Place. Bradley Cooper definitely takes the cake with ambition though. On top of writing, directing, and starring he also cast himself as a singer across one of the most celebrated singers of our times. Boy did he deliver. I wouldn’t go as far to say he feels like a contemporary of Gaga, but Cooper does make you feel like Jackson Maine earned his superstar status.
It’s almost chicken and the egg with Cooper and Gaga in this movie. Is it more impressive that Lady Gaga as an incredibly accomplished singer shows she could act? Is it more impressive that Bradly Cooper as an incredibly accomplished actor shows he can sing? I personally side with the later over the former (however I am an actor and my singer girlfriend would argue the exact opposite). Regardless of what side of the coin you fall down on, Bradley Cooper delivers in a big way.
Cooper gets lost in his performance of Jackson Maine. He becomes that character. Although he is affecting his voice and it may look a little hokey in the trailer it reads extremely well in the film. It’s not just that Cooper can sing, but you buy he is a rock star. He carries himself with the same type of weight as Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. The difference is Phoenix is playing a real historical figure while Cooper has just made up a musician up out of the blue. Yet it feels just as real.
The film can be showy with giant music montages on arena stages and dramatic scenes of insobriety. However, Cooper really shines as a director is in the little moments. The most beautiful moments of the movie are the quiet private moments between the two lovers. You almost feel guilty for watching as it doesn’t feel like it’s something for your eyes. The movie ends with the grandest and most dramatic performances to date and yet at the climax of the song Cooper cuts away from that stage back to Jackson’s and Ally’s living room. The film ends with them sharing one more private moment together.
A Star is Born is a must-see. For anyone making a strong Oscar pool this is the exact type of film that sweeps. Unlike La La Land a few years ago it delivers. The two stars perform on levels you have never seen before; they do it effortless. If you have watched the trailer (maybe one to many times like me) you will be happy to know that everything in the trailer happens in the first 15 minutes and what follows after is just as magical as those cherry-picked moments. I have kept this review extra sparse this time because I do not want to take away the joy that is this film from anyone. Go see it right now and get lost in its beauty.