Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Shine Bright in “A Star is Born”

The hype for A Star is Born out of the Venice and Toronto film festivals made the release of the new Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga film feel like an event. The fourth iteration of the classic story was said to be the Oscar front-runner from the jump, with the direction, the music, and the performances receiving universal praise. Yet could a fourth film iteration and the third remake of A Star is Born truly be that good?

I’m happy to report that yes, the film does live up to the hype. The music is great, Lady Gaga proves that she sure can act, Bradley Cooper earns the Oscar buzz as both a director and an actor, and even Sam Elliott shines in this thrilling rendition. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elliott, who has long been an underappreciated character actor, receives his first Oscar nomination (despite limited screen time).

Going in I knew that there would be much to love about the film, but what I couldn’t predict was how much it dives into the honest, tragic portrait of alcoholism and addiction, and how the disease affects not just the person struggling, but all those around them. The success of A Star is Born largely stems from the fact that every single element — from the performances to the music — serves the film’s serious, and all-too-real subject matter. If this movie doesn’t punch you in the gut, you might need to check to see if you’re still alive.

Like its prior iterations, the romance at the heart of the story hinges on a chance encounter between an alcoholic star, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), and a soon-to-be-star, Ally (Lady Gaga). His admiration for her talent leads her to become an overnight social media sensation. And if you’re familiar with any of the previous versions of this story, you know that from there, they are on opposite trajectories: Ally’s star rises as Jackson fades.

The film also features the requisite “big scenes” from the past films: the show-stopping performance that finally secures Ally’s ascension, the marriage, the awards ceremony embarrassment, the rehab, the relapse, and eventually, the tragedy. In a very real sense, it’s a story we’ve seen before, multiple times in fact.

It’s the intimacy with which Matthew Libatique and Cooper shoot the film that sets it apart from its predecessors. In fact, the musical numbers don’t feel epic in scope; rather, Cooper keeps the focus locked to the performers. When performing at Coachella, there are no grand shots of the screaming masses. Instead, we only see them through the lens of Jackson and Ally on stage. We are there with them, experiencing what they’re experiencing, feeling what they’re feeling.

In non-musical scenes, the film slows down and becomes a quieter, more meditative look at love and tragedy. It’s these elements that help the film feel fresh and necessary.

Adding to this is Sam Elliott’s Bobby Maine, Jackson’s much older brother, and voice of reason, who reminds Ally that music is essentially only twelve notes. There are only so many songs or stories that you can tell within those twelve notes of an octave, so it comes down to how the artist interprets them and presents them to the world.

This is essentially Cooper, the director, presenting his master’s thesis on the imperativeness of retelling this story. Yes, we’ve seen this before, but there is still a wealth of emotion and empathy to excavate within that deep template.

The issues of popularity and fame still take center stage, but Cooper smartly removes the jealousy in Jackson and Ally’s relationship. Instead, the film explores Jackson’s psyche and addiction during Ally’s ascending career, making the film a brutally authentic and harrowing portrayal of dependency.

After a lifetime of being told that she wouldn’t be a star, Ally knows that this is her chance to make something of herself. However, she deeply loves and sympathizes with Jackson, and refuses to enable the habits that are slowly killing him. It’s through this dynamic that Lady Gaga realizes her full potential as an actress. Ally treads the delicate lines separating her fandom, her business manager, and the intimacy and honesty that she grants Jackson when they’re alone. As a result, Gaga, in what is likely a very personal performance, shows off the many dimensions that this role requires.

Yet, the film rests on Cooper, as an actor, and as a director. First things first: He can sing. We all knew that he could act, as his four Oscar nominations (three for acting, one for producing) have shown. To be sure, the songs that Cooper is tasked with singing are simpler than Gaga’s, but his vocal performance rises to meet hers. Even with the added dimensions to his role, Cooper gives his best performance yet as a bruised, troubled, but still kind soul.

Out of his love for Ally, Jackson repeatedly tries to break the cycle of addiction. It’s in Jackson’s moments of sobriety that Cooper is able to go to truly vulnerable places as an actor. And these moments are heightened by Cooper’s use of intense close-ups, filmed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

As Jackson reveals his troubled relationship with his father, with his brother Bobby, and his past suicidal thoughts, Cooper’s voice cracks, and his eyes swell with tears. For anyone who has ever been on either side of this conversation, the movie can feel all-too-real. And while sentimental, Cooper earns that sentiment. Rarely do studio film characters feel as authentic as Cooper’s Jackson Maine, and Cooper goes to some truly dark, depressing places to make Jackson feel three-dimensional — an element that was severely lacking in the prior installments.

Regardless of whether A Star is Born becomes an Oscar front-runner or not, it’s awe-inspiring that a studio film from a first-time director and starring a musician-turned-actress can work as well as it does. Music may be limited to twelve notes, and Hollywood filmmaking might be limited to mostly reboots and sequels, but if every filmmaker was able to layer a story as Cooper does with A Star is Born, Hollywood would be in a much better place.

Watch Now: A Star is Born (1937), here on Fandor.

Oscar Season is officially upon us. So read our thoughts on NYFF 56 (Part 1 and Part 2), along with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “I Am Not A Witch,” “Assassination Nation,” “Mandy,” “The Sisters Brothers,” and “Hale County This Morning, The Evening.” Plus, be sure to read A Star is Re-Born, our account of the history behind the many “A Star is Born” films.
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