“You’ve got to dig deep into your soul or you’ll have no legs” advises fading country rock legend Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) to his meteorically rising popstar of a girlfriend Ally (Lady Gaga). It’s advice that Cooper himself has heeded for this fourth big screen iteration of the A Star Is Born story, his directorial debut and a film in possession of such colossal quantities of soul and heart that his longevity in this discipline is all but guaranteed. Already assumed to be an Oscar Best Picture front runner, A Star Is Born more than belongs in that conversation, up there with the very best films of 2018.
More like the 1976 Barbara Streisand version than the 1937 or 1954 ones, 2018’s A Star Is Born concerns itself with the music industry rather than Hollywood. Jackson Maine is an alcoholic and an addict, going deaf just as his star is starting to dim. He’s still selling out stadiums, but he’s clearly stuck somewhere that spells the eventual end for him. Drunkenly, he stumbles upon a drag bar, where the insecure but immensely talented Ally performs. Immediately entranced, he combines her talent with his industry cachet and loving support and, well, the title says the rest.
Gaga is no stranger to worldwide superstardom, but this is her first lead in a feature film and, just as Ally’s career explodes into life, so too does the notion that Gaga has genuine movie star chops. She’s the centre of the film, bursting with energy and life, and she handles Ally’s various transformations brilliantly. It’s a role that plays to her strengths, of course, but as a music star announcing their presence as a serious actor, you’d be hard pressed to think of many examples of it being done better.
Cooper is outshone by the sheer blinding charisma of his co-star, but still gives one of his best performances. Affecting a tragic Deep South rumble of a voice, he flickers between a roaring fire and a timid shadow as Jackson battles with his own jealousies and addictions. This envy does make itself known, but it rarely bubbles up enough to seriously threaten Jackson and Ally’s rather predictable but still deeply moving romance, a way that A Star Is Born both avoids and embraces convention. What’s more unique is it’s handling of addiction. It’s never conveniently forgotten about for the plot, but nor is it allowed to overpower the whole film, the disease of alcoholism hanging like the spectre it is over the course of the story.
As great as all this stuff is, the real power of A Star Is Born lies in its songs. There’s a cavalcade of rousing original compositions for both Ally and Jackson, sure to top the charts upon release, and they’re all performed with spectacular style. Ally’s first stadium performance is transcendent, a ballad that will have you soaring through the air and leave you weak at the knees, while Jackson singing a simple love song to Ally by their piano is heart-rending in its softness and intimacy. Though Cooper might not exactly have Gaga’s breathtaking vocals, his music leaves nothing to be desired, forceful and lyrical.
Cooper directs all these sequences with the sort of confidence and verve you rarely see from actors’ directing debuts. He blends clean, clear shots with more immersive styles that get you right into the thick of a gig – some performances were filmed at Glastonbury and Coachella for additional authenticity. He’s willing to go all in on his visual storytelling, leaving things unsaid when words are unnecessary. Clearly a passion project for Cooper, he also gets a producing credit and had a hand in the surprisingly wonderful screenplay alongside Eric Roth and Will Fetters.
Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle make big impressions as some sterling support, but Cooper’s film puts Gaga and him dead centre and rarely loses its focus from this compelling central couple and their vast musical talents. A Star Is Born took me by complete surprise and blew me away, a crowdpleasing romantic musical that is irresistibly moving and uplifting. It batters away any cynicism you might have about it, the grandness and sincerity of it all pummelling your doubts until you can do nothing but surrender to its joys.