I didn’t think I was all that interested in seeing the new version of A Star Is Born. I’ve rarely been happier to be proven mistaken.
This film is phenomenal.
I’m a fan of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, both. So perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised that I ended up spending 2.25 hours sitting in a theater, losing myself in them.
I’m not going to offer a plot synopsis or go through specific scenes. There are a couple of points I want to make, but mostly I want to offer a list of all the reactions I had watching this movie. In no particular order:
Not bad for the fourth version of this film and Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut.
To start, I’m hopeful for Cooper’s career as a director. This is exceptionally assured work for a first-timer. The composition, the pacing, the staging—his work behind the camera is confident. I’m especially impressed by his willingness to let scenes linger, his fascination with dramatically small moments. He displays an unnerving talent for creating scenes that are truly, uncomfortably awkward. There are choices he makes throughout—most small and unremarkable, one pivotal—that even more seasoned directors might balk at, for fear of alienating the audience. But these choices are correct and effective. They fuel the characters who fuel the story.
His staging of the concert sequences is rapturous. He switches between big and exciting to small and intimate with ease. He clearly loves every facet of these characters and this story.
Cooper may well be one of the best up-and-coming directors working today.
But the biggest revelation is Lady Gaga. Her performance is powerful. It’s clear she’s not a fully trained actor but the roughness around her edges makes her character prickly in all the best ways. She doesn’t shy away from the dangerous emotional work. There’s a sincerity to her that enraptures the audience.
I’ve seen other musicians try to make the leap from concerts to acting and it usually doesn’t go well. Concert performance is all about doing your show for your audience. Acting—especially acting on screen—is about connecting to your fellow actors. It’s about being present and engaged, open and vulnerable. It’s about listening. It’s an entirely different skill than concert performance.
Gaga may not have sophisticated acting craft at her disposal but she’s the most engaged and present person on the screen. She listens with intensity. She invests so deeply in her character, in her relationships with her fellow cast mates, you can’t do anything other than invest all of yourself in watching her.
It helps that she’s surrounded by some of the best performances on screen. Andrew Dice Clay as her father is heartbreaking in his sincerity; Dave Chappelle is the sage best friend everyone wishes they had; Anthony Ramos is the effusive and supportive gay best friend everyone should have; Sam Elliott continues to prove he’s incapable of giving a bad performance, and this one is one of his very best. Everyone in this movie is someone you can care about.
Gaga’s chemistry with Bradley Cooper is electric. It’s utterly believable these two people would fall for each other like this.
Cooper’s performance is probably the weakest piece of the puzzle. He’s a well-trained actor with a depth of craft at his command and he delivers a masterful performance. That he’s the weakest part of the movie is perhaps the greatest testament to how good this movie is.
I found his voice distracting: he give his character a deep, gravelly, Sam Elliott-type of voice. At times, it seems like he’s trying too hard to “do a voice.” I can’t say I blame him: he’s a fantastic voice actor and he’s been doing a lot of it lately. I figured he was a bit stuck in that mindset. Still, as I said, his performance is masterful and the character he presents is fascinating.
The real problem is this: every time he’s onscreen, all I can think about is Kris Kristofferson. The voice, the lanky hair and scruffy beard, the lean physicality—Cooper is basically doing Kristofferson’s character from the ’70s version of A Star Is Born. He does it very well—Cooper is a far more talented actor than Kristofferson—but I feel like he never truly makes the character his own. For all his admirable commitment to his portrayal, it feels a bit like mimicry.
Cooper boasts a wealth of craft but lacks some of the sincerity that Gaga brings.
It’s frustrating how easy it is to spend more words critiquing the weaknesses of a work than praising its strengths. In the end, I want you to know this:
This is one of the very best movies of the year. Lady Gaga is a revelation. She and Bradley Cooper burn up the screen, take your breath away, and break your heart.
But the real star born in this movie is Bradley Cooper, the director. I can’t wait for his next work.