“What is love if not a helpless acceptance of our lover’s shortcomings?” the powerful music drama A Star is Born asks. The tragic romance shared between career musician Jackson Maine and up-and-comer Ally at the center of A Star is Born is a refreshingly raw cinematic punch to the stomach. Seasoned with somber specificity, the film’s dramatic twists of the knife are fastened sharply to the beating hearts of its potent characters. We experience joy alongside them. We grieve with them. Their hardship pains us just as we celebrate their victories, small and large. From writing a song drunkenly on the sidewalk to belting it out live to a packed crowd, A Star is Born tends to the moments the define their characters’ lives, all the while holding its audience emotionally hostage to their often ill-conceived impulses.
Bradley Cooper (who directed as well as starred) shows a masterful command over his characters and his audience, beginning the film with a free-wheeling handheld shot as his Jackson plays to a sold-out stadium. The camera work is intimate and predatorial, circling Maine like a hawk. Another voyeur in a lifetime full of them. We connect immediately to this talented traveler with a penchant for the drink because Cooper shows off Maine’s ugly side (mainly said drunkenness and the side effects that follow) right in with his dirty, non-dismissible charm. This is a broken man, talent or no. And A Star is Born makes us content with the very difficult reality that some broken men cannot be fixed or tamed or unbroken. No matter how much good and how much talent resides inside.
It’s mere moments of screen time before Jackson stumbles into a local drag bar to discover Lady Gaga’s Ally roaring on the stage. Talent in its rawest form. He waits for her to change out of fake eyebrows, tending to the umpteenth glass of booze. They hit the local haunts, sucker-punch cops, and lick their wounds with bags of peas, becoming intimately embroiled in a country-fried love affair that binds both their personal and professional lives in whirlwind fashion. Soon, they’re sharing the stage (the film hits an emotional climax when Gaga is first thrust unwittingly in front of the mic in front of tens of thousands of hungry onlookers), sharing a home, and sharing a life.
A Star is Born howls in its first half. The intimacy shared between Gaga and Cooper, a quiet, soulful bright spot that hovers over the remainder of the film. The pair harmonize perfectly, sharing a chemistry that threatens to scorch the very celluloid its printed on. As their union presents new opportunities, we see both celebrating a new apex of their love life and their professions, with Ally claiming the limelight as her own and Gaga absolutely owning every second it illuminates her.
Gaga the performer and Gaga the actor live in absolute harmony here, the former tearing into vocal tracks with the kind of unbridled talent that saw her rise to the top. The script (written by Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters) takes an almost biographical stance on Gaga’s ascension, baking her outsider, underdog story into Ally’s stardom’s birth. Her non-traditional offerings as a pop star (a big voice, a big nose) is commented on and celebrated. Jackson loves Ally’s nose. It’s a glue that binds the songbirds. The imperfections hold love strong. The small details become the strongest symbology of their bond.
As the film shifts into its back half, the narrative loosens its chokehold grasp. Too many things happen too quickly. Things get dark. Whimpers turn to moans; blacking out turns to belligerence. Jackson and Ally’s love turns from a beautiful tonic to a debilitating poison. In a smart twist of irony, the musical structure of the film transforms. Gone are the soulful ballads (including the likes of Gaga’s explosive single “The Shallows”) replaced by dime-a-dozen poppycock that focuses more on Gaga’s swaying hips than her luminous vocal talent. Painful and meditative and hard to watch at times, the later portions can’t quite reach the fireworks that make that first portion sparkle so impossibly though its closing moments remain the gel that gorilla glues the whole tragic enterprise together.
The performances never waver, crescendoing into totems of hardship and pain and sacrifice that define the film’s difficult stance on personal demons. Alcoholism is a major player in the film and those affected by visions of its destructive powers should consider themselves warned. This is not an easy elixir. Cooper’s performance is evocative of the great unraveling movie men (think a reined-in Nic Cage from Leaving Las Vegas) and arrives smothered in a tragic sense of desperation that proves low-key haunting long after curtain call. How suiting, it seems his star has arrived as well.
CONCLUSION: ‘A Star is Born’ rips to falsetto highs and baritone lows as it follows a pair of star-crossed lovers and musicians in Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (both of whom give award-worthy performances). Emotional musical numbers, intimate direction, and a grief-inducing dose of somberness infect this challenging portrait of love as addiction and addiction as demise.