Directorial debuts don’t seem as risky, all of a sudden. From Greta Gerwig to Paul Dano, Bo Burnham and Jonah Hill, all the hip disaffected young things seem to be successfully transitioning from roles in front of the camera to those behind it. Bradley Cooper will likely match Gerwig’s Oscar nomination with this heartfelt tale of tumultuous musical love.
Cooper directs and stars as Jackson Maine, Jack to his friends, a country singer whose career is on the wane but by no means done. Persistent hearing problems and alcoholism threaten his stability, but it’s love that switches the track of his fate. In a quest for post-gig booze, he happens upon Lady Gaga’s Ally, a waitress who croons stunningly in her spare time. Her performance knocks him off his gin-soaked socks, and he starts wooing her as soon as he can see straight.
From there a classically predictable mirror show unfolds – as Ally’s star rises, Jack’s falls. She is picked up by enterprising agents and remodelled into a laser-guided surefire hit, while he slides into jealousy and further substance abuse. Cooper smartly limits the antagonism with which Jack glowers, keeping us onside with this isolated figure until we’re invested in his plight.
In truth, the downfall section of A Star Is Born, its final act, is overlong and somewhat overwrought. It earns a period of reflection, but Ally’s transition from honest minstrel to product is at once glacial and unconvincingly quick. The film’s true value is found in its opening act and whirlwind midsection.
Jack and Ally’s first 48 hours together are seamlessly portrayed, the sort of romantic rush that quickens the heart. From breathless performances in front of gigantic crowds to hysterical first private jet flights, Ally’s feeling of life-changing potentiality is nicely realised. Their romance is saturated by Jack’s drinking, but non-judgmentally. His affections are clearly independent from his addiction, but sadly affected by it nonetheless.
Lady Gaga and Cooper make a tremendous pair, and the latter’s direction is hard to fault. Jack is loveable, impulsive and stuck in his ways, but militantly dedicated to Ally’s artistic worth. Ally herself is relatable, even in her most glamorous guises, and self-assured enough to call Jack out without hesitation. There is little either could have done better.
With impressive location-based shooting at festivals and venues, music is the other star of the show. Lady Gaga’s range and vocal power is no surprise, but nonetheless breathtaking coming from her unadorned character; Cooper’s crooning, and indeed his gravel-voice in all guises, is impressive in the extreme, convincing and varied in its delivery. The songs are catchy and believable, though hit a bum note when Ally’s career becomes corporate. A tune she performs live on television is laughably bad, a point being made far too bluntly – John Legend’s jazz fusion in La La Land offers tuition on how to more subtly undermine musical instincts.
As musical dramas go, though, this entry in the A Star Is Born-verse will surely be well-regarded as time passes. That it tails off in its second half is forgivable – a worthy price for a perfectly judged Dave Chapelle cameo alone, even before considering the touching quality of the rest of the film.