“A Star Is Born” (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Full disclosure. I kinda sorta wanted this film to suck. Being neither a Bradley Cooper nor Lady Gaga fan, I wanted to believe that the hype was due to their gigantic following as individual performers. I expected the music to be sappy and overtly populist. I worried that the formula of the story would over-extend in its effort to pull tears from the audience.
Well, I saw it in an empty theater last night and none of my expectations were met…which is to say it did not suck…at all. Cooper and Gaga far exceeded my expectations. The music (with the exception of the pop star stuff later in the film) is, for the most part, terrific. And, until the last moments of the film, the emotional pull on us is because of how UNDERstated the story is.
Cooper’s direction shows a deft, light touch in most places. Yes, he occasionally over-emphasizes camera angles, and he loves him some two-shots, but overall, it’s a terrific first effort. Of course with Eric Roth as a co-writer, Darren Aronofsky’s personal cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, and longtime (and brilliant) editor, Jay Cassidy, you’ve put yourself in some pretty good hands. And all that’s before we get in to who contributed to the creation of the original songs and, of course, the presence of that great pillar of the western voice-over, sarsaparilla drinking, and on-screen brilliance, Sam Elliott. But, even with all that help, it could have easily been paint-by-numbers. That it has so many layers, keeps you invested in spite of knowing the story, and still wrecks you by the end, is a testament to Cooper’s tight and confident control of the reins. Oh…lest we forget, he also has to act in the thing.
And that he does. Very, very well. He claims to have used Eddie Vedder as a starting point, but takes much more advantage of his proximity to Mr. Elliott. In fact, if I had to categorize the trappings of the character, I’d say it’s a younger, rock’n’roll version of a cross between Mr. Elliott and Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake, from “Crazy Heart”. I don’t mention this to take away from his work! The previous sentence only describes the specificity of his character work. No, it’s his EMOTIONAL investment that sets it apart and makes it a singular performance – especially his ability to so precisely, and subtly, delineate between sober Jack and wasted Jack – a task that is usually done with all the finesse of an anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote’s head. Working harder and with more care than anything previously, it’s an effort that i must admit changes my view of his work. As for awards odds…I’m still too far behind in my viewing to make that sort of judgement, but I haven’t seen anything else that precludes him from being in the discussion.
As for Ms. Gaga (is that how you say that?), ironically, the only time I don’t believe her is when she becomes as successful as…well…Lady Gaga, in the film’s later stages. Prior to that, however, she is fascinating, endearing, exciting, and appropriately challenging. She makes him work hard (well, they make each other work hard) to find unconditional love – a love that feels legit. And the harder they work, the more you believe it, root for it and cry over it (often).
But let’s give a standing ovation to the previously mentioned Sam Elliott. I swear, that guy can get more mileage from a single use of the word “fuck” than anyone in showbiz. His eyebrows alone deserve an Oscar. But, seriously, his presence completely grounds the whole film (even if one of his earlier scenes feels rather forced in the writing). He’s simply…simple…which in a movie with two GIANT stars, is so very necessary. And just as important a piece is the wonderful, and all-too brief, appearance of Dave Chappelle. PLEASE can we get him some more film work? That man has lived a life and he brings that old-soul wisdom onscreen every time.
The only other character worth mentioning, Gaga’s father, is played by an actor living in the midst of the most unusual professional resurrection in…forever? Yes, that is Andrew “Dice” Clay. Yes, that Andrew “Dice” Clay. Say what you will about his stand-up routine decades ago, but he’s now been pretty great on “The Blacklist”, terrific on his own sitcom, “Dice”, and was one of the few good things about HBO’s mess of a show, “Vinyl”. And here?He is pitch perfect. It’s not a large performance, but it’s spot on in its believability and I hope it leads to more work. The aging, self-aware Dice is becoming a terrific character actor.
As for the music, almost everything Cooper’s Jack sings on is terrific. Most of that is music co-written by Cooper and Promise of the Real frontman (and oft Neil Young collaborator), Lukas Nelson. Nelson’s own work may be more melodic, and certainly more on the country side of country rock, but he’s done some great things here with Cooper. Especially the film’s opening track, “Black Eyes”. And then there’s the Jason Isbell contribution, “Maybe It’s Time”. Hell, even I fell in love with Cooper’s character while he sang that piece of songwriting magic. Of course, the big hit, and a big part of the story is the song, “Shallow”. Proving how easy it is for a music producer to destroy a good song, it’s fantastic when sung by the two leads, and equally obnoxious when it is a hit later on. The same can be said for all of Gaga’s, ‘Ally!’ solo work. None more so than the Dianne Warren-Gaga co-written disaster, “Why Did You Do That?”. It’s an important song in the story, but, man, Warren must have had a great time tasked with writing such a shitty song. But overall, the music is as successful a piece of the film as the writing and the acting.
So…when all is said and done, I’m going to have to go ahead and call this a “must see”. I mean, there’s even an appropriately manipulative, and perfectly cast, Labradoodle, fer chrissakes!
Written on 12/13/2018