A Star Is Born ★★★★½

"Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It's the same story, told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. That's it."

***

He's a man of many talents, that Bradley Cooper.

Why, just for A Star Is Born, he starred in it, co-wrote the script for it, directed it, learned to sing and play guitar for it, wrote the feem toon, sang the feem toon...

It's an absurdly large workload to have imposed upon himself for a film that it's worth remembering is the now-fourth version of a Hollywood classic that has been remade and imitated so many times over that it was practically unimaginable what Cooper could possibly bring to it that was fresh and new, and - on top of everything else - is also Cooper's directorial debut.

But, as has now come to pass, A Star Is Born (2018) was a financial success, a critical smash, a merciful alternative to replace The Greatest Showman soundtrack being replayed everywhere you go for the 756th time, and the source of countless cracking "I just wanted to take another look at you" memes.

Hopefully, the film's sheer emotional punch, and overall staying power, won't be damaged by its inevitable pop-culture-saturation come awards season, when the same handful of clips and songs from the film get churned out into endless EPK video loops of Oscar-baitery, and/or/if the film actually wins some statues for Cooper, Gaga, Elliott, et al; it's good enough a movie to not need awards recognition of its excellence, but having said that, I'm also aware that this particular rags-to-riches, price-of-fame story - and all the ones ever remotely akin to it - has always been irresistible catnip to the various Academies, so I shouldn't be surprised if A Star Is Born does major bank at the Oscars, and beyond.

Anyway, getting back on track:

It was always going to be interesting to see what kind of influences Cooper would draw from for his own directorial choices, be they from directors he's admired from afar, or the ones he's worked directly one-on-one with as his career has skyrocketed.
How much did he take notes from the directors of the various comedies he's been in? (David Wain for Wet Hot American Summer? Garry Marshall for Valentine's Day? Hell, he's worked with Todd Phillips so many times now - for the Hangover trilogy, War Dogs, and the upcoming Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie - that Phillips even shares a producer credit on A Star Is Born.)
Or, as is more likely, did he learn most of what he wound up implementing for this film from his time working with the big-dog dramatic auteurs? (Derek Cianfrance? David O. Russell? Clint Eastwood?)

However much Cooper may or may not have taken inspiration from any/all/none of the above, there are a bunch of other directors' echoes I could see rippling through the myriad ways Cooper crafted this film.

The vibrant, pulse-pounding live musical performances, smothered in steam, blinded by stagelights, slathered in the visible sweat and the spit and the tears of the singers and musicians baring their souls for all to see, while the lively cameras shoot everything with wild frenetic abandon?
Put me a lot in mind of the genre-defining concert movies of Jonathan Demme.

The improvised, naturalistic, overlapping dialogue of characters trying to communicate with one another?
Why, that's a Robert Altman touch if ever I've seen one.
(Side note: I also really liked the added true-to-life detail of characters occasionally asking each other to repeat themselves so that they hear the words spoken that they originally missed. Granted, most of this comes from Cooper's character of Jackson Maine becoming increasingly deaf, so he has to ask people to repeat themselves... but still.)

Regardless of influence, Cooper's years as a prolific actor has given him the imponderably important and distinguished skill of being a real actor's director, applying to himself - and the rest of his cast - whatever kinds of techniques you'd imagine he would've picked up over the years from his directors and co-stars, by which I mean: creating the kind of creative space that allows the actors to feel trusted, open, intimate, and secure, which then thusly allows Cooper to coax the most sincere, raw, vulnerable, honest, and just plain best performances out of everyone involved in the whole venture.
You can really see this attitude Cooper has of loving the actors he's working with, by the way he's plainly totally captivated and infatuated with the art of the close-up, observing all the tiny details of the micro-expressions flickering across their faces, seeing thoughts and emotions and intense contemplations play out in their eyes, uninterrupted before our very eyes, and just letting the actors do their thing, and do it superbly.
(N.B. - I'm gonna take a wiiiiiiild stab in the dark here, and postulate that Cooper's various tenures under what can only be described as David O. Russell's directorial dictatorships were, um... really quite low down in the list of influences Cooper drew from while making A Star Is Born, because... well, Russell is frankly the complete polar opposite of a director who makes his actors' work environments feel in any way "safe"...)

Cooper's performance itself is perhaps the best of his entire career up until this point, the dude disappearing under the long greasy hair, sickly spray tan, shambling drunken gait, and gravelly bass-rumble voice of Jackson Maine.

But of course, a ginormous part of what Cooper brings to his character is inextricably linked with the mighty Sam Elliott playing his (much) older brother, Bobby, because Cooper's perhaps most significant capital-C actorly Choice for his speaking voice boils down to him basically doing a Sam Elliott impression for the entire movie, which then makes you half-expect Cooper to suddenly break the fourth wall, and start talking about how he takes comfort in knowing The Dude is out there abiding, takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.*
*(Which is funny, because speaking of films starring Jeff Bridges:
Even though A Star Is Born existed three times over before the Bridges film Crazy Heart came out, it sure does feel like A Star Is Born (2018) is more than a smidge indebted to Crazy Heart in some of its story elements, its tone, and especially in its music. No shade or shame, though. 'Tis but an observance...)
Although to be fair, they seem pretty self-aware about this impersonation thing, considering the repeated line about how Jackson took Bobby's voice, which then hilariously/meta-ishly comes across as Sam Elliott directly confronting Bradley Cooper for stealing his literal voice.
Which is all to say:
Cooper's performance would be nothing without Sam Elliott there as well, bringing an integral poignant pathos, and a world-weary steadfastness as Jackson's more stable, but tough-loving big brother, who by turns acts as antagonist, confidant, mentor, and eventually, friend to both Jackson, and Ally, as played by Lady Gaga.

Speaking of which:

So, I have a confession to make.
When I was a teenager, I used to absolutely hate Lady Gaga.
And I mean... really really hate.
Like, utterly loathe, and despise, with a fury and an irrationality that was outsized of any and all logic or reason.
It wasn't just a dislike of her music, but a profound displeasure with the way she looked, the way she acted, the bizarre stunts she pulled, the endless procession of one lunatic fashion choice after another after another (the meat dress being one example, but then also something like that jacket she wore that was made out of Kermit the Frog heads), the feeling that she was just ripping off stuff Madonna had done 20 years beforehand (although that was pretty low on my list of grievances, because I didn't like Madonna, either), and on top of all that, the widespread notion that was popular back in the day - and which I willingly bought into, because I was an abominable arsehole - that Gaga was a hermaphrodite.

Those were bad times, and I was a bad person, who had yet to realise that he was in any way at fault for the things he said, and the things he believed.

But, nearly 10 years after Gaga first burst forth upon the pop culture scene, back when I was 15-going-on-16...
...my oh my, how the times have changed, as have so much of my attitudes towards many things... including her.

Before seeing A Star Is Born, I grew to appreciate Gaga more as a person (an unapologetic eccentric, a proponent for a bunch of admirable causes, a vocal advocate for women's rights and LGBT rights, etc), and as a singer (because of all those Oscars performances she's done over the years, which all actually gave me goosebumps).

And now after seeing A Star Is Born (or, as it should be more appropriately titled: A Star Is Born This Way!), Lady Gaga the Actress is a side of her I can unashamedly get behind, because OH MY GOD, THIS PERFORMANCE IS EARTH-SHATTERING.

The singing side of things? It goes without saying that she knocks it out of the park, blows it out of the water, and [*insert further idiom for exceptional excellence here*].
But stripped of the spectacle and the extravagances that her artistic persona has always been built upon, it's made a lot clearer for us to see the actual woman (or at least, a close approximation of the actual woman) underneath the Lady Gaga mantle, through the lens of the character of Ally, and bear witness to her as a real, viscerally emotional, flesh-and-blood human... all of which one must assume was, again, helped considerably by Bradley Cooper's conducive work ethic for his actors, and in particular the trust and intimacy he and Gaga had in their filmic partnership, both under his directorship, and together as co-stars.

(That's not to say I don't still find it immeasurably weird whenever writer/director/actors star in their own films, and write it in so that their characters are always making out/simulating sex with the characters played by their attractive co-stars. Like, unless all parties involved in these filmmaking practises explicitly say that such things were budgetarily necessary, and/or that they were fine with it, and/or any other acceptably reasonable reasons, I just cannot help myself in finding it WEIRD. Like, am I CRAZY...?)

And the soundtrack, my GOD, I'm just... I'm... 🎶I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I'll never meet the groooooooound!!🎶
AHEM.
Sorry, I... I don't know what came over me.
Sometimes it's hard keeping it so hardcore, y'know?

But anyway, yeah, that's about the end of my singing this film's praises, long after everyone else already has.

Is the film flawed?
Oh, unequivocally.

The passage of time across all of the events of A Star Is Born feels uncannily slippery, no real structure or weight given to how many months or years are depicted between the beginning and the end. As an audience, we can only guess at it being somewhere in the region of five(?) to ten(?!?) years(?????), but there's no indications of changing times - be it through ageing make-up, costuming, technology, title cards, dialogue, or any of the typical shorthands movies implement to convey significant amounts of time having passed - to make us feel the assumed longevity of everything that occurs.

And also, right at the very start of the film, Cooper indulges in some flagrantly heavy-handed, eye-rollingly glaring visual foreshadowing of the film's conclusion, via a giant red billboard that passes by Jackson's car window as he's leaving the opening concert.
(I mean, geez, Bradley! Not everybody has seen the first three versions of A Star Is Born to know in advance the inevitable ending!)

But other than that?

Yep. Colour me mighty impressed with Cooper's first outing as director, and Gaga's show-stopping outing as a bonafide lead actor...
...well, not including American Horror Story; I never got up to her season of the show, anyway.

Oh, and by the by:
I continue to not like Lady Gaga's music.
I like the songs she does where she's classically diva-esque, singing operatically, and somewhat conventionally, and generally when she's covering other artists' work.
The mainstream pop-type stuff she makes herself, though?
Still doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid.
But hey, I'd much prefer to not like her art, and still like her as a person, rather than the opposite be true...

...eeeeeeeeven in spite of that godawful Simpsons episode that was made all about her-- BUT STILL.
IT'S FINE.
WE'RE GOOD.
END OF.

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