With pop superstar Lady Gaga as his muse, legendary cinematographer Matthew Libatique behind the camera, and a well-worn, beloved Hollywood fable to work with, the cards are stacked in favor of star/co-writer/director Bradley Cooper for his directorial debut, “A Star is Born.” And yet, his film is frankly startling in how assured, artful and emotionally authentic it is. This is finely-tuned precision filmmaking — genuine artistry on display in a huge, prestige studio movie. It’s a blockbuster romance that looks and feels like an indie film, all in service of an expression of pure love.
In a physically and vocally transformed performance, Cooper stars as country rocker Jackson Maine, with an Arizona origin story right out of an epic western melodrama. His ears ringing from chronic tinnitus, and at the bottom of his bottle after a show, he stumbles into a drag bar for a drink and encounters Ally (Gaga). She’s singing an Edith Piaf number, with painted hair and stick-on eyebrows. Sprawled on the bar, she locks eyes with Jackson, and with us, and instantly both he and we have fallen for the impish singer. After a few rounds in a cop bar, a fistfight and an impromptu intimate songwriting session in a supermarket parking lot, she’s fallen, too.
Fundamentally, “A Star is Born” is a movie about love — love that shines in the best of times, persists in the worst — but truly, it is about falling in love with Ally’s face. The moment that’s been in every version of the movie, where Jackson says he “just wants to take another look” at her, is the thesis, the spine around which the story rotates. The camera reflects the love for Ally’s Roman nose Jackson professes, following her profile as she looks up, toward the future and the stars, while Jackson looks down, ruefully reflecting on his past. He squints, grins and hides under his hat, but can barely contain his delight in Ally, in her talent, her voice, and yes, her nose.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE not to fall in love with the stars of “A Star is Born,” but there’s so much more to love, too. The supporting cast is dynamite, from Anthony Ramos as Ally’s best friend to Sam Elliott doing career-best work as Jackson’s older brother and embattled tour manager, Bobby. Former bad-boy stand-up comic Andrew Dice Clay turns in an uncommonly sensitive performance as Ally’s father, a former crooner himself.
WITH AN assist from the Lukas Nelson Band, who serve as Jackson’s on-screen band, “A Star is Born” is a foot-stomping barn burner of a music movie. The live sets are electrifying, especially the first scene where Jackson pulls Ally on stage to sing the ditty they wrote, which is as hair-raising and goose-bumping as it gets.
Gaga demonstrates a remarkable facility for acting while singing: In her first belter of a song onstage, she progresses from terror to surprise at her own vocal power. The live scenes are a physical experience, the weight and heft of the music overtaking your senses, a stark sensory juxtaposition to the hollow pop songs she performs as her solo career takes off.
Gaga’s superstar status falls away as she embodies this girlish, unassuming and forthright young woman. She’s innocent but tough, a bit wary. Ultimately, she’s a dreamer swept away by this older star, and Cooper carefully calculates that the audience fall in love with Ally in the way Jackson does.
As her star rises, Jackson constantly reminds her that being a singer/songwriter is about what you have to say as much as the way you say it, when you have an audience willing to listen. Cooper knows he has an audience willing to listen, and what he says is so beautifully, powerfully open-hearted, vulnerable and loving it’s overwhelming. A star has indeed been born: Bradley Cooper as auteur, who takes his chance to say what he wants to say and simply knocks it out of the park.
“A STAR IS BORN”