‘A Star is Born’ review [1 of 2]: Grit behind the glam

Bradley Cooper recreates a role of a lifetime for him and Lady Gaga in ‘A Star is Born.’

There’s much more to the fourth reiteration of A Star is Born rather than being Bradley Cooper’s passion project. It operates on many levels – an underdog musical, a titillating romance, an existentialist tale, and most of all, a deconstruction of a glorified superstar. Such idea of stardom comes with a massive delusion from public perception, especially the fans who feel deeply connected with their icons, when in fact they know very little about them – their hard work, sacrifice, the constant battle against their inner demons and other external forces. A Star is Born examines the grit underneath the glitz.

We see a country rock veteran Jackson Maine (Cooper) who’s reached a point of his career where liquor and drugs (instead of passion and his fans’ undying adulation) becomes the fuel in his performances. Coming down from a show, he winds up in a local drag bar where waitress Ally (Lady Gaga’s movie debut) captivates him with a rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” When asked if she performs her own songs, the unassured but very talented singer-songwriter says that she’s not comfortable doing so because her physical appearance, especially her big nose, has always been a hindrance to make it in the business.

But Jackson sees a brilliant potential in Ally and gifts to her the confidence to take on the world. “All you gotta do is trust me,” he says. Next thing you know, she’s performing her original song “Shallow” in an arena filled with mad audience. There’s a palpable moment of catharsis once she gets into the glorious bridge section. The magic is undeniable. Not only a star is born in that moment, but also a movie star in Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performs ‘Shallow.’ Photo via Warner Bros. Pictures.

Stripped from elaborate costume and makeup, Gaga has never been more human and vulnerable on screen like this. While it’s expected that the pop star will blow you away with her singing chops, as an actress, she fleshes out her character into a multidimensional being. In a parking lot scene, Ally and Jackson have a heartfelt conversation about their lives and aspirations, letting the viewers peer into the scared dreamer inside her core. At the same time, Ally is a feisty soul who can pack a punch to a stranger if she feels protective over her friend.

Gaga sustains this level of believability right until her soul-baring and heart-shattering swan song, “I’ll Never Love Again.” You’ve probably heard a bunch of Oscar buzz for her and I’m glad to say that she delivers, maybe even better than what’s expected by some. Her acting performance here works as a declaration for the bolder roles she can take on in the future.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga performs ‘I’ll Never Love Again.’ Photo via Warner Bros. Pictures.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see Cooper in a different light – full-bearded and sporting his co-star Sam Elliott’s low baritone voice. The actor, being not a trained musician, reportedly went on six months of rigorous training and even contributed in composing some songs for the film. He fully embodies the persona of an alcoholic and drug addict country icon with a hint of humility and kindness. His chemistry with Gaga is off the charts – the two bring contrasting elements that otherwise complement well together.

However, the biggest accolade will have to go to Cooper for his work as a director. It’s easy to let loose in Gaga’s prowess and spin this into a full-blown musical show. But he resists doing so – at its core, A Star is Born is still a drama. Cooper revels in close-up shots, letting the camera caress the characters’ raw features to reveal different layers of insecurity, ambition, hurt and longing.

It’s evident that he’s been deeply attached to his work because he could’ve easily cut some of the scenes (and insert it as a DVD bonus feature) to achieve better pace and shorter run time. Still, for a first time director, Cooper does an excellent work in calibrating a classic film into something truly Academy Award material.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as touring musicians in ‘A Star is Born.’ Photo via Warner Bros. Pictures.

What fascinates me the most here is the idea of a former star descending to give way to the birth of a new star. As Ally’s career skyrockets (and starts mimicking Gaga’s actual career), Jackson spirals down to a path of destruction, courtesy of his alcoholic and substance abuse habits. A Star is Born speaks for the current landscape of music industry. Public attention are finite resources and artists are being replaced time and again, just like how Jackson’s music roots start to feel outdated (“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die”).

Ally is slowly turned into something that she’s not – she changes her image and transitions to electro-pop music, which makes Jackson feels frustrated. “The one reason we’re here is to say something so people will hear it. You don’t apologize, you don’t worry why they’re listening or how long they’re listening. Just tell them what you want to say,” Jackson says. True to that platitude, Cooper, in his direction, grabs the mic and speaks what he feels.

A Star is Born, in its substantial run time, takes you into a full emotional journey of a superstar coming into fruition, with the film ultimately crushing your heart like a tin can in its final moments. It’s a fearless and luminous debut work – one can hope that both leads cross paths again in the future. The soundtrack itself features different music styles that mesh well and Cooper encases them in a terrific concert experience (provided you catch it in a Dolby Atmos theater, no less). This film deserves to go the distance and grab a couple of Oscar nominations.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Bradley Cooper, ‘A Star is Born‘ stars Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Michael Harney and Rafi Gavron. Based on the 1937 film of the same name. Run time: 135 minutes.


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