When a studio decides to build hype for a film, sending posters and trailers to all corners of the known universe, it’s generally for two reasons. One is that they’re worried a big investment is going to flop and, rather than abandon it completely, they try to intrigue people pre-release and recover as much money as they can. The other reason is the exact opposite — the studio thinks they have a hit, whether financially, critically or both. Sometimes they even believe they have a Best Picture contender on their hands, and when that happens, they start spreading the word early. The marketing gets people to their local theaters, but it also generates an expectation of quality that can be difficult to live up to.
Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born, the third remake of the 1937 original with himself and popstar Lady Gaga in the starring roles, is an example of the latter case. I can recite much of the trailer from memory by now, and the reactions from crowds at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals were highly enthusiastic. After seeing it myself, I am happy to say that it surpasses the hype.
The story follows a basic trajectory that we are already well familiar with. Jackson Maine (Cooper), an established musician who drinks away his growing disillusionment, discovers Ally (Gaga), a young singer and waitress, in a chance encounter. Drawn to each other both musically and personally, Jack decides to bring her onstage at one of his concerts, resulting in the exposure that catapults her to stardom. What follows is an exploration of their relationship as Ally rises and Jack declines, a simultaneous meditation on the nature of fame and a study of addiction and alcoholism.
The greatest risk of revisiting this story is the potential to descend into cliché, but A Star Is Born avoids becoming a movie we’ve seen before by being as genuine to its characters as possible. The dialogue feels realistic and lived-in, weaving naturally between funny and heavy. This is clearest in the contrasting ways the leads engage with family — Ally playfully ribs her father (Andrew Dice Clay) as he heaps praise on his talented daughter and claims he once sang better than Sinatra, while Jack and his older brother Bobby (a wonderful Sam Elliott) speak in gruff, understated shorthand. The script values honesty over theatricality, and trusts the audience is smart enough to read between the lines.
Matching the character-driven dialogue, the camera is most interested in the faces of the actors, drifting intimately around them as they interact with each other. When Jack and Ally perform onstage, the camera faces them instead of the crowd, encouraging us not to experience their point of view but to carefully watch how their experiences affect them. Typical of an actor-director, Cooper chooses to let the performances shine through as much as possible, though his direction is not without its own visual style. Jack and Ally are often soaked in red and blue light, mimicking the concept of contrasting pairs that serves as the film’s thematic focal point.
The relationships explored in A Star Is Born are almost always between two entities. Jack and Ally, Jack and Bobby, Jack and Alcohol. Ally and her father, Ally and her best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos), Ally and Fame. Each pairing illuminates a different side of the lead characters, and only after seeing all of their interactions do we understand them completely. The only major exception is the triangle that gives the movie its soul: Jack, Ally and Music. All the film’s conflict and heart can be experienced through its music, co-written by Gaga and Cooper with a variety of country and pop artists. The best acting occurs while Cooper and Gaga sing, as their expressive faces reveal every scrap of emotion and inner monologue. In a telling line early in the film, Jack dubs Ally a “songwriter,” which to him means more than “singer” ever could. He sees a kindred spirit, someone who speaks the same language, and he repeatedly stresses to her the importance of having something to say.
Cooper says a lot with this film. He humanizes both the celebrity and the addict, making the movie enjoyable and touching in the process. It looks like the studio got this one right — A Star Is Born is one of the best films of the year.