Jackson Maine is a popular country singer battling alcohol and drug addictions. Ally is a woman who has all but given up on her dreams of being a singer. They meet one night when she is performing at a bar he happened to pass by when he was out of liquor, beginning a relationship that changes both their lives.
If this general plot outline sounds familiar, it should. This is the fourth version of A Star is Born, not to mention countless other films that followed a similar narrative path. This iteration, directed/co-written/produced by Bradley Cooper and starring him and Lady Gaga, stands out thanks to the passion of the performances, the intimacy of the filmmaking and the music.
The opening, covering approximately the first 24 hours after they meet, is maybe the best stretch of any movie this year. So much information about Jack and Ally is gained just from the way they look at each other. Their dialogue during this part of the film is so honest and real and it leads up to a concert scene that could be the best of its type I have ever seen. As a whole, the rest of A Star is Born does not quite live up to its first act. But that start perfectly introduces the major characters and themes that define this story.
This is Bradley Cooper’s first credit as either a screenwriter or director (he co-wrote it with Will Fetters and Jewish writer Eric Roth). It is clear he knew exactly what he wanted from every frame. Cooper trusts the substance of his story, and his actors (including himself), allowing them plenty of opportunity to get across the emotions. In a lot of debuts, you can sense the director trying to show you everything they know how to do. Cooper has the patience and timing of someone who has been doing this for years. It also helps that he gives the best performance of his career. He is effortlessly able to establish the talent and charisma of Jackson, conveying both a star presence and a down to earth quality. He is very easy to like, which goes a long way toward explaining why those around him put up with the headaches that come with him.
Matching him step-for-step is Lady Gaga. We are not just watching a talented woman sing a song. Some musicals stop their story to watch the actors sing. While the music in A Star is Born is good, every single lyric is a key part of the character’s journey. Because of everything we learn about her, watching Ally sing is a totally different experience than watching Lady Gaga sing. People keep calling this her acting debut, which is untrue; she was in two other movies and a tv show. However, this is the first time it feels like she has been cast for more than her persona.
The 2018 A Star is Born feels like it could have been produced in 1954, when the up-to-now most beloved version of this story was made. It is a tear-jerking melodrama built on the movie star abilities of its two leads who are surrounded by a skilled supporting cast tasked with making the stars look better (including Sam Elliot as Jackson’s brother, Dave Chappelle as a confidant, Anthony Ramos as Ally’s friend and Jewish actors Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Ron Rifkin and Greg Grunberg; they are all very good). When done well, this formula can work brilliantly. It has been done well here. Expect to hear a lot about A Star is Born on Oscar night.
4½ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews
Read Ben’s last movie review on Love, Gilda.