"A Star Is Born" Review: A Fresh Look At A Classic Story

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Even before its release, A Star is Born (2018) existed as a landmark point in the history of contemporary American cinema.  This is the third version of the story to hit the screen since 1937.  It also marks the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, as well as the big screen debut of Lady Gaga.  The press for this iteration has been brimming with praise since the film’s premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival.  While not destined for classic status, A Star is Born is a strong debut feature and provides a fresh look at a classic story. 

Ally’s (Gaga) life is a struggle; she lives at home with her father (Andrew Dice Clay) and works as a server in an upscale restaurant in the city.  Her only reprieve is her weekly slot at a local bar, where her vocal talent allows her to perform live alongside a group of lip-synching drag queens.  This all changes when singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) swings by the bar on his way home from another headlining arena show.  Maine immediately falls for Ally, and the couple embark on a journey through the contemporary music industry filled with soaring highs and soul-crushing lows. 

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The film serves as a strong directorial debut for Cooper, who quickly draws the audience in, even though they may be familiar with the story.  The numerous musical performances were shot live in secret during a number of large musical festivals and feel extremely authentic…because they are.  The camera stays close to its characters, resulting in extremely intimate moments within the context of packed stadiums and festivals.  The songs, many of which are penned by the stars, are emotional earworms that support the main storyline and will likely stay with audiences after the lights come up in the theater.

Cooper’s reliance on close-ups throughout the rest of the film keep this intimacy going when its characters are offstage as well. Despite the quality of the direction, the film is not without issues.  The film’s 135 minute runtime starts to crawl after a while; the momentum built in the opening hour drifts away in the final act.  In addition, Cooper’s choice to replace an existing narrative of the rise and fall of musicians with a battle over “authenticity” is an interesting one, but it doesn’t quite land. 

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While the film serves as evolution for Cooper’s career, it’s Lady Gaga who steals the show.  The pop star’s stripped-down turn as Ally makes her a serious contender in the film industry.  Near unrecognizable sans the elaborate costuming she’s known for, Gaga becomes her character and elevates the emotional core of the story.  This is in contrast with Cooper, whose performance as Maine, while good, wasn’t born of the same immersion  While the leads are obviously the focus here, much could be said for the supporting cast, all of whom provide a real sense of depth to their roles.  This is especially true of Sam Elliot, who plays Cooper’s older brother/manager Bobby. 

A Star is Born isn’t perfect, but it will likely be remembered as a watermark in the careers of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  The film will probably receive a number of Oscar nominations, although wins are not guaranteed.   This reimagining of A Star is Born manages to take a classic Hollywood tale and update it with the visual playbook of modern independent cinema.  Fans of either may come away with a positive opinion of the film. 

Rating: A-