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Review: A Star is Born

Martin Kirsch finds Bradley Cooper's directorial debut far from shallow and a powerful drama about the downturns of fame

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Image: Warner Bros


Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle

Length: 2h 14m

Rating: 15

Bradley Cooper's versatility as actor has always been impressive. From bipolar former teacher in Silver Linings Playbook, to hair-obsessed FBI-agent in American Hustle, Cooper has played them all. Now make room for Cooper the director (and singer). His new film 'A Star is born', the third remake of a 1937 film, is a surprisingly powerful tale about fame's fallout.

Rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper), veteran of music (and alcohol), stumbles into a bar in need of a drink. 'La vie en rose', performed by waitress Ally (Lady Gaga) literally moves him to tears. After visiting her backstage, and after a drink together, and after meeting some intrusive fans, they bond over music and songwriting until the next morning. What may have been a one-time late-night experience turns out to change their lives. Visiting Jackson on his gig the following day, Ally is encouraged to go on stage with him to perform together. From then on Ally surges to fame, beyond anything they would have imagined.

Despite their tour's expansiveness, be it Coachella or Glastonbury, Jackson and Ally maintain a cosy intimacy on stage. They only have eyes for each other, living for the music they perform together. The energy and fun they radiate are almost palpable, especially in the songs 'Shallow', and 'Always remember us this way'. Cooper, minimalistic and intimate, Gaga, expansive and majestic, make a powerful stage couple. But that is not everything A Star is born has to offer.

This is a story primarily told off stage, a drama with gradually unfolding intensity. Early on, Jackson sums up quite well what we have to expect: that everyone is just out there to tell people a story, that the attention they give you is limited. This is not a film about music, but fame. And as good dramas usually do, A Star is born delivers on its promises. Jackson, in many ways at the centre of this film, has an almost palpable intensity about everything he does. A boyish innocence and charisma he cannot protect from the world. From the very beginning he looks like a run-down older brother of Father John Misty. The first thing off-stage is having a drink, or rather, a full bottle of spirit. He sweats permanently, and his rhetoric is more a southern drunken mumbling than comprehensible speech. Origins of this problems drinking problem are never clearly identified, only hinted at, but that doesn't matter that much. That this is more than just another version of the drug-addicted-rocker stereotype comes down to Cooper, delivering his most powerful performance since American Hustle.

Where Jackson goes low, Ally goes high. Although she remains somewhat elusive, Gaga portrays Ally as someone determined to leave their own mark. Despite being often subjected to the outfall of the forces around her, be they Jackson or the demands of modern pop music, Ally succeeds. This rise is most unlikely; when meeting Jackson, Ally has given up on her dream to make it as a singer. Even that was decided for her, by (male) boardroom executives. After becoming famous, it is public attention that dictates how she leads her life. Jackson deals with it by drinking. She escapes into the superficiality of conventional pop songs in a Saturday Night Live! performance. In this way A Star is Born moves fame's tolls into the spotlight.

Cooper also explores unconventional power balances in relationships. Ally is never just a passive sidekick serving as female eye-candy and inspiration for the male artist. She is an artist in her own right, potentially more talented than Jackson, which he is aware of. Initially a mentor-apprentice relationship, they evolve into equals and collaborators. Cooper's directorial debut has succeeded at transcending many outdated Hollywood stereotypes about portrayals of artistic craftsmanship. It may not be a surprise that Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful Phantom Thread, released last year, explored similar motives.

Seldom has a debut been so emotively diverse, so thematically rich. An influence may have been Martin Scorsese's rigorous, classically structured dramas, and David O. Russell's, close-ups and use of the steadicam, always focussed on actor-driven storytelling. In the end, these influences remain nods to these directors; Cooper emerges to the world as storyteller in his own right, hopefully adding more work as director to his filmography. A Star is Born.

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