For some people, music can be a drug. It silences the doubt, clears the mechanism away, and delays the chaos of everyday life. When done right, it can also tell you who you are.
For seasoned country rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a life in music has provided him with an escape from the demons that bought up real estate in his soul at a young age. When he gets on stage, something clicks in his head, and nothing can hurt him.
When we catch up with Jack at the beginning of A Star Is Born, he's falling apart. Maine can't do a show without a few pulls of gin and a couple snorts of whatever pill happens to be in his pocket; the ultimate painkiller for a musician with a checkered past. The night ends with him black out drunk and high on someone's floor or in a neighborhood bush. He's three feet deep in a hole with two shovels digging simultaneously.
One night, Jack blindly waltzes into a drag bar and sets his eyes on Ally (Lady Gaga), a struggling singer who can't figure out how to bust out of her shell built around self-doubt. A natural songwriter with a killer voice who need a push, Ally is drawn to Jack's charm and easy going outlook on the world, even if the drinking scares her. She's strong on her own, but feels connected to Jack instantly. Their dalliance in a grocery store after one of his shows where Ally sings one of her songs for him is a perfect launching pad for their relationship.
Before long, the two are falling madly in love, writing songs together, and bringing out a new light in each other's eyes. As her career takes off, Jack's addictions take hold of him, threatening to bring everything crashing to the ground.
Here's the thing. This is an amazing movie with so much feeling and emotion packed into the experience. There's artistry to spare and the production credits are top notch all around, from the look and sound to the cinematography that gives you a backstage pass to one wicked concert.
Cooper took a bold step in marking his directorial debut with the fourth rendition of a cinematic story that is over 90 years old. Nobody was asking for another remake, and yet Cooper finds a way to make everything about the story seem fresh and modernly vibrant, like it's hitting you for the first time. Instead of going halfway with his first stint behind the camera, Cooper goes big and won't have to worry about going home without a trophy or two.
It starts with flawless acting.
The actor continues to amaze me with his limitless talent. Cooper's Jackson is a mountain of emotional conflict divided by a love for performing and Ally. A rock star tripping down the other side of the hill, hitting everything on the way down. Jack's grizzled good looks hide a facade of problems that you don't need to squint too hard to notice. The actor completely goes for broke here, delivering a performance anchored by gravity, confidence, and a knowledge of the world of pressure that can fall on a star.
All of this from the guy who once upon a time gave Vince Vaughn trouble at a wedding. Cooper shows why he is one of the best in the business with his layered portrayal of a fading legend hanging onto one last thing. Just listen to Jack's tempered down growl of a voice, and you'll get it. There's a greatest hits album of despair living in there.
Gaga is a revelation. Stripped of the all the makeup and hair coloring that turned her into an international superstar and one of the most iconic performers on Earth, she builds a different kind of persona with Ally, retaining the gorgeous aspects of the artist while giving us something new. You will recognize the thunderous pipes when she takes the stage with Jack for the first time, but it's the quieter moments that Gaga separates herself from just another pop star trying to be in a movie.
She creates something here from scratch. The second half of the film is full of heartbreak and carries scenes stuffed with raw emotion, and Gaga holds her own with a stellar cast. You can't sing your way out of some of the dark corners this story takes pit stops in, and Gaga was up to the task. If this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship between worldwide musician and film star, I like where it's headed.
Andrew Dice Clay may have dropped into the entertainment business ripping dirty jokes decades ago, but he's crafting a fine resume of supporting work in film, and it continues here. Clay plays Ally's father, Lorenzo, a charismatic former crooner who owns a driver service and reminisces about the days where people compared him to Sinatra. Here's an actor who re-calibrated his persona to fit Hollywood's needs, so we know the voice, but like the new twist it provides.
Sam Elliott leaves a dent as usual playing Jack's older brother, Bobby, a man who much less manages his sibling's career as he does keep the car from crashing into a median. Cooper and Elliott share a few powerful scenes that resonate due to the actors showing restraint, and the older actor gets to drop one of his classic wise speeches near the end of the film that deftly wraps the story together quite nicely.
The technical aspects of this film stand out as well. Cooper's choice to create original songs and perform all of them live lends the film a special brand of authenticity and draws you closer to the characters and their plight. You will find yourself falling for these people, because you believe in the actors and what they have created. It's the care instilled by Cooper, Gaga, and the crew that make the experience something else. The 136 minute run time doesn't feel like a weight either.
Cooper co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and the trio have something to say about the rigors of success and where popularity can take you in old and young age. They didn't just take William A. Wellman and Robert Carson's script and brush a paint stroke over it; they crafted something wholly original, which helps the story seem as relevant as it ever was.
A scene at the Grammys with Ally and Jack will make you so uncomfortable that your legs may curl up in your chair, but this was the filmmaker's intent: to be honest about the deadly parlor of addiction. A scene that will come off to some as over the top and a little too much hit the perfect notes for me. It felt so real.
The way Cooper shoots the film in a visceral all encompassing manner with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, so the audience feels strapped in tight to every scene as if they are passengers on Jack's bomb blasting off into the sky of regret and sadness. There's a buy-in factor from everybody here.
The soundtrack blazes a trail with tunes that feel organic and were built for a reason. Cooper's "Black Ice" kicks the film off on the right foot, and Gaga's "The Shallow" will surely happen on a stage at the Oscars next year. The songs all feel fully realized, giving away hints to the characters, and will be strumming along in your head long after the lights come up.
A Star Is Born marks the official kickoff of the Oscar season, and it sets the competition on fire here with a remake that doesn't come off like a standard remake. A film that doesn't coast on its star power or superstar musician, yet tells a familiar story with refreshing passion. A film that asks the tough questions about addiction, disease, loyalty, fame, and how the usage of one's talent can change a life, for better or worse.
Is it a showcase for Cooper to show that he can be a movie star, actor, and auteur all in one place? Yes, and he succeeds on every level.
Is it a showcase for Gaga to sing her heart out and prove that the Golden Globe she won for American Horror Story was no fluke. She's legit and could follow in the footsteps of Streisand and Garland.
These people belong to the not messing around crew of creators. The gambles taken by Cooper and Gaga here show true artists who are not complacent or hedging their bets. This could have gone very wrong and given each of their careers a black eye, but it may prove to be their wisest move yet.
I gotta tell you...I loved this film. Can you tell? It made me smile, sing along, and it hurt at times because of how real and honest it felt.
A great movie can feel like a drug. It can take your mind off all the tedious things that happen every day, silence the doubters, and basically shut everything annoying about your life down for two hours. It takes a truly great flick to do that, and A Star Is Born pulled it off.
Thank you, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. You may take a bow.