A festival headlining set introduces Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a Country/Rock ’n’ Roll musician inflected with the meaty chords and funky dream beats of the likes of The Black Keys. He is clearly a titan of industry, revelling with his band, performing to the crowd and with talent to boot. But there is something sombre behind those glazed eyes.
A drag bar with a frivolous sense of community and passion paves the way for Ally’s (Lady Gaga) musical intro -a magnanimous take on La Vie En Rose – to which Jackson has stumbled upon, desperate for a stiff drink. Both of these musical set pieces made me feel as if I should applaud rapturously. This deftly balanced introduction to Jack and Ally’s burgeoning love story, underpinning themes of Fame, Addiction, Mental Health, Art and Integrity is a microcosm for a film with something to say on all fronts.
Bradley Cooper, is co-writing, directing and starring in this remake of a remake of a remake is proof of the title. His vision is broad yet personal. A film this confident, this raw, is rarely seen from a directorial debut. Cooper’s battles with an industry symptomatic of attention deficit disorder perhaps worked as the emotional anchor for his desire to re-tell this well-worn story that always seems to capture a zeitgeistal shift in the industry it represents. Though, the soul of artists fighting to say what they have to say, in a time when audiences want to look but not listen, has never been more pressing.
The story beats are relative to the previous version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, but this is one for our histrionic society. Cooper doesn’t attempt to appeal to the multi-faceted hoops of the modern-day dance, but rather aptly brushes them off. As a director, and an actor. There is no mention of followers, or hashtags, thank the filmic godesses. The crowds are mostly watching through their eyes rather than their phone screens. This star is born in the now but the stipulations of many films released conveying the now are expertly denied by Cooper’s screenplay, adding to the timelessness of the central ideas.
On their first midnight adventure, Ally can’t believe Jackson’s passivity to someone stealing a picture of him as he’s trying to buy a bag of peas. Ally is the younger, more vocal presence toward a society desperate to be snapped with a star. Jackson has grown up under the pressure of stardom and these contrasts of attitudes are balanced delightfully. Both characters not defined by any one ideal, but by a library of them.
This world they inhabit is diverse and cosmopolitan. The shallow jokes that surround masculinity, gender and sexuality so often passed for Hollywood rhetoric aren’t given daylight. The laughs come at the zest of emergent characters exemplifying the divergent generations. Ally’s father and his friends portray the older generation grasping onto the past with tall tales. Ally’s drag queen posse shines the spotlight on the LGBTQ community and their desire to define themselves, and have a good time doing so. Jackson and his brother Bobby (Sam Elliot exuding a powerful, poignant presence) represent family and the struggles sibling rivalry can represent as it battles against duty.
A Star Is Born isn’t the musical where song and dance represent ambiguous feelings – which is no bad thing, La La Land is one of my favourite films in the last decade. The songs here are the feelings, exemplified in the crafting of music.
“Tell me girl, are you happy in this modern world, tell me, is there something else you’re searching for?” This is the opening lyric to, Shallow, the film’s showcasing duet that played over the trailers. Sung by Jackson, ignited in the possibility of love but unable to shake the cynicism that acts as a parasite to hope.
“Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?” retorts Ally with a ponderous voice fluctuating through angelic range. There is much to be unpacked here, as there is with most of the songs given the time to find their space. Cooper has clearly laboured to make sure the live performances are wrung not only for their musicality but the acting that displays more than the lyrics suggest.
Amidst the wonderful musical set pieces, the narrative seeps out. Love blossoms naturally, believably. Set aside the awesome talent of the two stars and you still have a chemistry so strong that I thought I should have brought a lab coat and safety goggles. Their commitment to the bettering of one another fizzes over into so much more than meeting cute and following the worn clichés of Hollywood love. All is wonderful when they’re together but their careers pull them further apart; Ally’s stardom’s goes supernova and Jackson addresses his addictive traits and his tragic upbringing. Alone they drift. No thanks to the British villain in Rafi Gavron’s Rez, Ally’s industry mogul.
Integrity is torn at by the demands of an industry so set on defining an artist’s talent and looks. At the Grammy’s, a stumbling, reluctant performance for Jackson is an evening of celebration for Ally. Like the best genre cinema, the drama here is engrossing and unsettling, leaving one praying for a release valve for the mounting pressure.
Cooper and Gaga both prove their stardom in their respective new forms. A Star Is Born is clearly a milestone in Cooper’s career, culminating from the desire to have something worth saying, in a medium he adores. Undoubtedly a humungous gamble for all he puts on the line here, especially as first time Writer and Director and, not least for casting a pop megastar opposite his career best performance. The reward far outweighs the risks, heavy as they were. Artistry bleeds from this picture about the haemorrhaging of artists. Gaga’s poise in the quiet moments only lends itself to her conviction during the ballads. In a time of efforts by capitalist systems to industrialise artforms, Cooper and Gaga show that stars are not made but born.
P.S. Take tissues. I cry-breathed, gagging on raw emotion more than I ever have in a cinema. That from the guy who became dehydrated after watching La La Land.