HomeMoviesA Star is Born: Oscars Season, Here We Come

A Star is Born: Oscars Season, Here We Come

A Star is Born
Photo Credit: Neal Preston/Warner Bros.

In every generation, a star must be born.

It’s not a strict rule – it’s been 42 years since Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson last brought the characters to life – but this latest A Star is Born has been gestating longer than most. During the last decade and a half, Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Esperanza Spalding have all been rumored to star. Imagine living in the timeline where Clint Eastwood directed a version starring Bradley Cooper and Beyoncé.

Now, finally, the newest version hits screens with Cooper in front of and behind the camera and pop star/provocateur/actress Lady Gaga as the titular star.

While the 1937 A Star is Born was a straightforward drama about Hollywood starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason is set at the height of classical Hollywood’s movie-musical period, Cooper’s takes its cues from the Streisand version and sets the story in the music business.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an aging musician whose alcoholism and prescription pill addiction is slowly ending his career. Gaga plays Ally, a waitress and secret songwriter who Jackson discovers singing in a drag bar one night. While the Streisand version never justified moving the story to the music industry, Cooper’s version is not only an Oscar contender in nearly every category, it proves to an audience hearing this story for the first time why it’s a timeless examination of the ways fame can test true love.

For a first-time director, Cooper clearly uses his experience to get the best from his actors. There’s Sam Elliott as Jackson’s much older brother Bobby, who gets some meaty material even if he’s barely onscreen. Raif Gavron is perfectly smarmy as Ally’s manager. D.J. “Shangela” Pierce does his best Jennifer Lewis impression since the “Snatch Game” episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars Season 3 as Ally’s drag mother and fellow Drag Race alum, Willam Belli almost walks away with the whole movie.

However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real revelation here is Gaga. She has proved herself a capable actor in the past (who could forget her bumping into DiCaprio on her way to collect her Golden Globe for American Horror Story), but this is her most impressive work yet.

One of the toughest things to buy about the Garland and Streisand versions is believing either woman would need someone to make them stars. All they’d need to do is sing once on a stage within earshot of any person and they’d be the biggest stars in the world. While Streisand never quite convinces the audience of that conceit, Garland manages to do it by acting as inexperienced and bewildered as possible. Gaga does the same.

When she first meets Jackson, Ally exudes confidence as she sings “La Vie en rose” in Edith Piaf drag, but as she and Jackson talk alone in her dressing room after, she’s nervous and even confused that this handsome, famous musician would be so fascinated by her. The dynamic makes it easy to understand how Jackson could instantly become convinced of her talent while also making us believe that Ally would need convincing herself. In real life, Gaga thrives on stage and her unique artistic vision is precisely what made her a star. Ally, however, seems almost embarrassed by her songs and singing every time Jackson drags her onstage.

Even more telling are the scenes after her career starts to take off. Though Gaga started her career with pop and dance music before moving to more country and rock-inspired sounds, it’s almost grotesque to watch the opposite transformation here. While the music itself (largely written by Gaga and a cadre of collaborators that occasionally includes Cooper) sells that idea as it fluctuates between raw, emotional rock and over-produced pop, Cooper’s performance also deserves credit.

As Ally’s sound changes, he becomes more horrified and out of control. His perpetually hunched shoulders and the occasional desperate look in his eyes also convey just how trapped and exhausted Jackson feels. Cooper struggled with real-life addiction and his performance of Jackson’s drunk/high behavior is brutally real. Still, this is Gaga’s movie, so he probably won’t get awards attention for his acting, but he certainly deserves praise. Unfortunately, his directing probably won’t get him any awards either—at least, in terms of visual style.

Though Cooper pulls fine performances from everyone involved, the film’s look is–if not amateurish–at least simplistic. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique did excellent work in movies like Black Swan and mother!, but he seems allergic to establishing shots here. Seemingly the whole film unfolds in handheld close-ups and every still moment or medium shot feels like a relief.

Live performances make up significant chunk of the film’s runtime, but we never really get a sense of the scope of these spaces or how many people are watching Ally and Jackson’s romance unfold because the camera never (with one notable exception) gives us the audience’s perspective.

Frustrating as that practice is, it’s clearly intentional. Take the shots where Ally and Jackson perform at Coachella. There as elsewhere, the camera is behind them with the audience sprawling out in the background. There’s much to see behind them–like mountains and palm trees and the glowing Ferris wheel in the magic hour light–but Ally and Jackson are the real focus.

That holds true of the rest of the film too. Cooper and co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters keep the story intimate, focused solely on Ally and Jackson’s emotional beats. But the result is that the film’s various plot points feel rushed, bringing Ally from nobody to pop star struggling to find her voice in a matter of days. The only reason the whole thing doesn’t feel unbelievable is that Gaga and Cooper have so much chemistry that it’s easy to believe in their characters’ whirlwind romance.

Every version of A Star is Born lives and dies by the central relationship. Any music is there to heighten that emotion and leave the audience in tears when the credits roll. Though this latest version works even if you’ve seen one of the previous iterations, it’s perhaps best for the uninitiated to wait until after seeing Cooper’s take before going back to enjoy Garland and Streisand’s work. The story may have begun as a cautionary tale about Hollywood fame, but even set in the music industry, the ending has a kind of emotional potency only film can achieve. It’s hard to imagine most screenings not ending with audible sobbing and shocked whispers. And it’s also nearly impossible to imagine that Lady Gaga won’t win an Oscar based on that ending alone.

A star is born, indeed.

Rating: 8/10

A Star is Born is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.


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