REVIEW: ‘A Star is Born’ chronicles stardom, heartbreak

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in Cooper’s directorial debut “A Star is Born.” The film traces an unlikely and ultimately tragic romance between country-rock musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) and up-and-coming musician Ally (Gaga). (Photo from IMDb)

Eighty years have passed since Janet Gaynor starred in the first iteration of “A Star is Born” (1937). Since then, the film — arguably Hollywood’s favorite story — has been remade three times, in 1954, 1976 and now 2018. With Bradley Cooper’s latest version, an ambitious choice for his directorial debut, the actor-director fashioned this age-old tale to fit snugly in the modern-day music scene. Under his keen eye, the film successfully immerses viewers into a romance supported by two mighty leading performances from Cooper and Lady Gaga.

The plot, immortalized in the Hollywood consciousness, is almost as old as film itself. Despite undergoing four variations, the skeleton of the story remains the same: A male celebrity falls in love with a young woman with great talent. After performing together, her career takes off while he struggles with personal demons that threaten to undermine his own fame. Previous versions of the film revolved around characters in the film industry; the narrative only came to center on the music industry after Barbra Streisand starred in the 1976 version, paving the way for Gaga.

Gaga dazzles in her role as the up-and-coming singer Ally, but because of more than just her vocal prowess. Like the fictional Ally, the film is Gaga’s maiden voyage onto the silver screen. Gaga’s comfort in front of the camera makes it easy to forget that it is her first time starring in a major motion picture. Her prior experience commanding the stage shines through — in every performance scene, she dominates as her voice blasts through the speakers and her visceral expressions demand the audience’s undivided attention as they contort with the shifting emotions of each song.

Cooper’s country star, Jackson Maine, is a persistent alcoholic with heavy emotional baggage; his dialogue is minimal, but his morose aura is present every time he is on-screen. Even so, Cooper is wise (and humble) enough to dial back so Gaga can shine brightest when she needs to. This is epitomized in their first goosebump-inducing performance of “Shallow,” in which Cooper physically moves to the fuzzy background as he gladly yields center stage to his leading lady.

Gaga and Cooper have a tangible chemistry, a testament to all the preparation that went into building their relationship. While they both have domineering stage presences, the two were able to balance each other out perfectly, each taking turns giving the other the spotlight.

Aside from his performance, Cooper’s directorial touch shines through in this remarkable debut; there is an intimate feel to the entire film underlined by Cooper’s wise decision to employ mostly close-up shots. The purposeful cinematography keeps the audience close to the players even after the plot widens. Dozens of concerts, and eventually the Grammys, play important roles in the plot, but their grandeur never detracts from the close relationships the audience has built with Ally and Jack.

Cooper’s direction stumbles during the second third of the film as he fails to condense a period where there is little to no action. He uses musical montages to fill the empty space but rarely sees them through to their full potential. In one instance, a bass drum beat ushers in a song perfect for a road-trip montage as Ally and Jack are set to go on tour; however, the sequence is cut short before the song can peak and the film returns prematurely to a concert setting. Nevertheless, letting such minor flaws undermine the entire experience is truly making a mountain out of a molehill.

Commanding performances and intelligent filmmaking — topped off by a powerful original soundtrack — yield an engrossing audio-visual experience, but primarily, “A Star is Born” is a captivating emotional journey.

Both characters are presented to viewers up close (literally) and personal, flaws and all. Through all of Ally and Jack’s ups and downs, the audience is led to feel everything with the couple: love, hate, excitement, anger, fear and despair — sometimes all at once. As Gaga belts the moving finale solo “I’ll Never Love Again,” at one point breaking the fourth wall by gazing directly at the camera, the film’s crux surfaces. Faced with tragedy, Gaga’s character Ally continues on — now confident in her voice and image, but most importantly, still grasping onto a sliver of hope.