No film came to Toronto with more overwhelming hype than the latest iteration of A Star is Born. This one, the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and starring the mega pop diva Lady Gaga, is the fifth version of this iconic Hollywood fable, the ultimate rise and fall story of the self-destructive trappings of fame. This formula, tried and true and arguably the most startlingly brutal depictions of the industry’s toxicity ever made by the industry itself, has produced a mixed bag of content. There have been incredible masterpieces like the Judy Garland version and misguided messes like the Barbra Streisand one. Someone once told me every generation gets the take on A Star is Born it deserves, but we haven’t had once since Streisand’s, so how does our era’s version stack up, and can it ever justify those rapturous reviews?
So, yeah, A Star is Born is pretty damn good.
If you’re going to do a cover song, you have a couple of options: You can pay slavish tribute to the original and copy its rhythms down to the very last beat or you can completely reinvent it to suit your own style. Anything in-between can feel messy. Bradley Cooper has been smart to take the former route in that regard, but that’s not to say the film itself, which has more in common with Streisand than Garland, is weaker for it. He knows what this film is and what he needs to do with it. The rhythms are familiar, even if the beat is more modern. There’s even a scene where the film puts a hat on the elephant in the room by talking about it’s always the same stories told over and over again. Sometimes, you just know best not to fuck with the classics.
Cooper is Jackson Maine, a country-rock star struggling with alcoholism, pill addiction, and an increasing debilitating case of tinnitus. A late-night hunt for a drink leads him to a drag bar (run by Shangela) where Ally (Lady Gaga) performs with her friends and blows him away. You know the rest - a passionate romance between mutual muses, lots of great songs, the tragedy of addiction, and that ending.
The film is a proper double hander, divided between Gaga and Cooper, but it also provides an excellent platform for Cooper to show off all the directorial tricks he’s picked up from his long acting career. It’s a remarkably self-assured debut that required a lot of heavy lifting, from the live concert scenes to keeping that eclectic array of actors on the same level. He proves himself to be especially enamored by close-ups, both to show his leading lady’s remarkable work and to display his own career-best work. I must admit that Bradley Cooper is an actor whose appeal has baffled me for years. Outside of his talking raccoon work, his performances do nothing for me, a point made all the more exasperating by his three Oscar nominations in as many years. You can make your own jokes about him delivering his acting zenith in a self-directed performance, slurring between rockstar charm and addict humiliation. His throaty voice suggests years of wear and tear and his singing is suited to such music.
Of course, a leading man in this story is nothing without his star. Lady Gaga is a born performer, one cut from the Madonna mold who is keenly aware of how to reinvent herself in ways that frequently comment on the act of fame itself. She’s even done the ‘stripped back to her roots’ evolution after years of baroque extravagance. Of course, there’s a difference between performing and acting, and while it seems reasonable that Gaga could have carried much of this film by presence alone, she goes well beyond that. Scenes like her well-worn banter with her dad (Andrew Dice Clay?) and his friends as she cleans the house or the early days of her courtship with Jackson carry such organic warmth. She plays Ally as an expressive wallflower who’s been through enough bullshit in her short life to stay silent when she sees it but remains shaken with self-doubt. She’s hopeful but pragmatic and Gaga feels right at home with that. It helps that her chemistry with Cooper is so great, although you can’t help but yearn for more of the first act, where the romance builds, over the second, where it falls apart.
The rise proves more satisfying than the fall, as Ally’s transformation from ‘real’ singer-songwriter to bejeweled pop diva who sings about asses is rushed to the point of perplexity. It’s also a contrast that doesn’t really work in 2018: Gaga and artists like Robyn, Lorde, Sia and many more have made this era of pop a critical darling with acclaimed personal storytelling through lyrics that can also be screamed with joy in the club. It would make sense for an old hand like Jackson to disapprove of Ally’s pop shift but the film itself also seems fully on his side in that debate, even though it’s condescending as all hell. A Star is Born has always been about the man’s toxic hubris, but Cooper likes Jackson too much to let him be totally wrong.
The film comes to life when music plays, offering a gaze into the intoxicating qualities seeing an act you love perform live can entice. With a couple of exceptions, all the songs are original (and sure to win that particular Oscar) and are as much a part of the narrative as the script. Surprisingly, they’re all pretty good too and that soundtrack is guaranteed to do The Greatest Showman levels of sales.
A Star is Born is going to go through a turbulent awards season. We’ve already had the anointed debut of glory — including an early leaked review calling it the best film ever — and soon the backlash will hit. It’s not the greatest movie ever made and it’s nowhere near the best film I’ve seen at TIFF so far, but it is an exceedingly entertaining musical drama that will utterly delight mainstream audiences. Essentially, this is a review-proof film, maybe the only one at TIFF, so my thoughts are trivial when spouted under that looming shadow. But at least we can enjoy the view.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers