Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” has built up such rabid hype, to the point of many film critics already calling it the slam-dunk Best Picture winner, that it almost seems destined to disappoint. If one is dead-set on this being the Great Modern American Musical, then it may very well come up short. But it is still a very good modern American musical, and that is worth something.
This is the fourth incarnation of “A Star is Born,” and even if you have not seen any of the other versions, this movie’s plot should not be a surprising one. It is a rise and fall story, the rise belonging to an up-and-coming singer and the fall belonging to her mentor and lover, a successful singer fighting a losing battle against alcoholism.
Cooper plays the washed-up one, alt-country superstar Jackson Maine, and Lady Gaga plays his protege, Ally. That the movie works as well it does is largely on the shoulders of their incredible chemistry together, both in dialogue scenes and when they are singing together.
Cooper and Gaga also do great work separate of each other. Gaga has been so good at cultivating personalities in her music that it comes as no surprise that she does a great job inhabiting this character, never getting making Ally’s working-class affections too over-the-top. And Cooper is terrific, playing a shambolic kind of charming that is easy to love when he is sober and easy to be repulsed by when he is drunk.
Cooper and Gaga are the center of the movie to the extent that most of the supporting cast are relegated to bit parts. But there are standouts outside the main duo, particularly Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother. He delivers the gruffness one expects from a Sam Elliott performance, but what sticks with you is his soulfulness, and how he portrays brotherly love soured by having to deal with years of debauchery.
As good as Cooper is in front of the camera, he shows the most talent behind the camera. For a first-time director, he shows surprising proficiency with the music, crafting catchy tunes that make perfect sense as hits within the film’s universe. And the staging and mixing of the musical numbers is superb, with sound artfully cutting out and coming back in.
The film is as great to look at as it is to listen to. Working with Darren Aronofsky’s cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Cooper crafts a style that melds documentary-style handheld and gorgeously unnatural colored lighting, bathing scenes of passion in vivid reds and blues. The style manages to perfectly combine the folksy naturalism Cooper aims for and the story’s inherent melodrama.
That combination is tricky, and Cooper the director pulls it off better than Cooper the writer. He at least gets it right for the first part of the film. The first hour or so is basically perfect, sweeping the viewer up with so much unforced charm and fun that they happily accept the cliches in front of them. As the film enters its second half, however, the cliches start feeling more obvious and rickety.
A plot thread of Ally becoming a pop star feels false in a movie that otherwise attempts for verisimilitude. The turn from her singing earnest love songs to her singing vacuous pop songs about butts is much too sharp, and her snooty British manager is the one character who never rises above stereotype. And Jackson’s downward spiral is strictly standard-issue, no signposts for a bottoming-out alcoholic that we have not seen before.
That being said, the film does right itself in its last five minutes, and even if it did not, what it gets right is so good that the weaker portions can be partially forgiven. It is yet to be seen if it will prove to be the Oscar juggernaut some are predicting, but separate of the hype, it is quite good and a most auspicious directorial debut for Cooper.