Lady Gaga justifies A Star is Born's comeback
The newest version of A Star is Born is the kind of film where a person’s reaction to it will likely say as much about their taste as it will about the film itself. The people for whom this film works will love it, buy the soundtrack, and likely see it a few times in theaters if they can. For those who don’t, they will either feel like they are missing something or that those people are delusional. Personally, I lie somewhere in the middle.
The biggest thing that the film has in its favor is Lady Gaga. Not that any of the other components are bad per se, but she is the mortar holding all the aspects of this film together. Not only does she provide her powerful vocals for the film’s musical numbers, but her contributions to the film’s music extend to her ear for pop hooks and lyrics that push beyond cliches to connect to the audience on an emotional level. And these things are not to be underestimated.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the film is seeing how a song goes from a simple piano riff and a thought to becoming a contemporary pop song with meticulously placed electronic beats and supported by live choreography. When performing, Gaga has the kind of screen presence that is absolutely captivating, and the rest of the film feels slightly less lustrous in her wake.
And it works because Ally, her character, feels like a real person. She isn’t “just” a singer or a pretty face. The songs that are written by her character feel true to that character’s life as a waitress by day, friend of drag queens by night, still living with her father (Andrew Dice Clay) and a lot of self-doubt about her dreams. After all, her father is the kind of man who claims to have been told that he was a better crooner than Sinatra (he just lacked the stage presence). So anytime A Star is Born is telling Ally’s story, it soars.
This extends to the beginning of Ally’s relationship with Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock star plagued by alcoholism and prescription addiction. The film absolutely sells their first meeting, from Maine seeing her perform in that drag bar, to the charm of the two of them icing her hand in a grocery store parking lot after she punches a cop. These two characters discovering each other, their mutual fascination palpable, are the most satisfying non-musical elements of the film. Tellingly, the entire film peaks right around the time they perform “Shallow” together.
However, the film begins to break down the further into their romantic relationship it gets. Despite Bradley Cooper’s considerable charms as Jackson, we know this cannot go well for them. As he begins to be unable to control his resentment toward her growing fame, the signs get worse and worse. We understand that she cares about him, but the film never allowed me to cross the emotional distance between understanding the arc of their relationship and feeling it. Partially, this is due to the film unfolding by moving from significant moment to significant moment without the kind of connective tissue that would build our relationship to Ally and Jackson. Each scene is being shown because it is in some way important in fleshing out the shape of the story, or because one of the supporting cast members needs to dispense impeccably timed homespun wisdom (which always feels like the kind of cliches regular people are allowed to use to sound wise, but we expect better from our film characters). There’s not enough room for the characters to live and breathe in their relationship. Subsequently, Ally’s rise is more linear, and therefore easier to track than Jackson’s rockier path.
The other cause of this, I suspect, is in Cooper’s performance. He’s too charming. Jackson is a little too square, his problems too readily diagnosed. His upbringing on a pecan farm with a drunk father and essentially raised by his brother (Sam Elliot), his struggle with fame, and how most of his songs are about embracing death all feel a bit too pat. So much so that the film had me convinced that there was going to be some twist, that Jackson was harboring some darker secret about his past. Some of this can be attributed to Cooper’s vocal affectation for the film. While done well (and explained with one of the best bits of dialogue in the film), it rang false in the sense that I never saw Jackson as Jackson because the voice kept reminded me of how much Cooper was putting into his performance. Again, that says as much about me as it does about the film.
As a director, Cooper certainly has an eye for shots. Some of them are a bit too showy, like the kind of thing a film fan would commit to the frame because our excitement to show off takes precedence over the camera work being invisible. That’s not a complaint about the film, but the direction is noticeable in a way that’s charming. Like a kid with a new skateboard that needs to demonstrate each trick for you until he gets it perfect. The effort can’t help but make you smile, even if it wears a little thin after two hours.
It would be unfair to call Gaga a revelation, but she alone is worth seeing this film for. The rest is competent and made with enthusiasm (always a plus), but she transcends well-worn ideas to leave a mark on the firmament that should far outlast this film.
A Star is Born is now playing in Philly theaters, and the soundtrack on my headphones, though I’ll skip the dialogue tracks. Does anyone like those ever?