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A Star Is Born (2018) Review

A Star Is Born Lady Gaga
RATING:
(4 STARS)

Though A Star Is Born has been made now four times, the 2018 version directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Cooper and Lady Gaga (in her first major film performance), is my first experience with these story beats. Of course, they’re not unfamiliar ones. It doesn’t take intimate familiarity with the Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, or Barbara Streisand versions to understand how this music industry and addiction melodrama will play out. But that doesn’t make its rises and falls any less impactful. Led by two stars giving best-of-year performances, A Star Is Born is familiar but exhilarating filmmaking.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an established country-rock star with a gravelly voice, legions of fans, and an addiction to drugs and alcohol that would rival anyone’s. After performing a show one evening, he stumbles into a drag bar where he takes in a moving performance of “La Vie en Rose” by a woman named Ally (Gaga). He sits with Ally after the performance, and he falls in love with her and the way she expresses herself. They continue spending the night together, hitting bars, hitting cops, wrapping their hands with peas, eating cheese curls, and singing original songs in the parking lot of a grocery store.

The next day, Jackson sends his driver to pick Ally up and take her, via his private plane, to the next show on his tour. Once there, he calls her out on stage and asks her to join him in a duet of the song she shared with him the night before. The clip goes viral, and Ally is suddenly as in demand as Jackson ever has been. With the help of a slick manager (Rafi Gavron), she changes her image, she performs on Saturday Night Live, and she’s on every billboard across LA. Jackson handles this poorly. Realizing that the precious time he has been spending with the Ally he met is slipping away, his drug and alcohol use gets worse and worse and worse. The two get married, but it’s clear something has to give in their life together.

A Star Is Born might not seem like the film you have to see on the big screen, but you have to see this film on a the big screen. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoots Jackson and Ally in pretty tight close-ups while they perform and emote, all while their music floods the theater. It’s thrilling to take in. The highlight is “The Shallow” performance, Ally’s first on a big stage, where her inexperience physically manifests itself in beautiful ways. Lady Gaga’s acting in this scene is that of someone with years of experience. It’s one of the best movie scenes in years.

Cooper is her equal throughout. His speaking voice is sort of unrecognizable. Eyes closed, he sounds like Sam Elliott, which isn’t helped by the fact that Elliott is the film’s third most prominent actor. His singing voice is surprisingly good. Best of all, however, is the vulnerability he brings to the film. That’s what least recognizable about a movie star—one of our last—who generally owns the screen with smarmy charm. This is something different, and it sometimes gets ugly, but it’s always compelling.

It’s hard to argue with critics who say the film loses a little something in its second hour, but that’s sort of the point. A Star Is Born brings us to such a high that hitting a similarly impactful low is inevitable. The film prepares you for it in this way, but it’s no less devastating when it arrives. It’s the kind of melodramatic rise and fall that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, but with Cooper and Gaga slaying at the box office (and possibly the Oscars next year), but it might be the kind of film we get more of going forward.

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