*This review contains minor spoilers only.*
In the first act of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut there’s an electricity in the air, a tangible atmosphere with jolts of energy. Because when navigating crowds and guitars, A Star Is Born is at its best; and it has one of the best first hours of the year. As wide-eyed, yet to be discovered singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) takes her first steps towards centre stage, you can feel her heart is in her mouth, so when she starts singing and those powerful notes come out it feels nothing less than world-stopping. As seen in those great trailers—when the music swells, the goosebumps rise and mouths are brought to microphones fireworks go off. Like any great live performance, there’s a transference of mixed emotions running all the way from anxiety to bliss. The beginning of this tale of decline is a lifetime of overcoming obstacles, soulful passion and on top of the world joy packed into one duet. It throws you up into the air and just when you think you can reach the sky it shouts up to tell you it’s not going to catch you when gravity starts to bring you back down to the ground. Cooper makes his home on stage—as both actor and director. Maybe that’s why things take a little dive when we leave it.
After Jack (Cooper) introduces Ally to the world and lights the spark that will lead to her music career, we go on a ride that contains dreams of stardom for a newcomer and a search for authenticity for a stage veteran. Jack has a genuine charm about him in that he knows who he is as an artist and is confident as a person. He is infatuated with Ally from the moment he meets her, and in watching his attempts to win her over it’s easy to vouch for him. The humour and romance brought a lot of smiles to my face, but behind the stadium curtains, and quite obviously so, Jack has serious addiction issues. He is constantly pouring himself glasses of alcohol at any chance he can get and even though he manages to stay upright on stage, he rarely does afterward. Ally, who is at the cusp of a new life, is in love with him and doesn’t seem to realise—or maybe want to realise—the full weight of it at the beginning. But as Jack’s behaviour and work ethic deteriorate, his problems start to affect not only their relationship but their careers as well.
In a lot of ways Cooper’s debut is an exploration of artistic authenticity. As Ally garners success, her music becomes more and more diluted from the soulful roots it came from until it’s basically pop music, with the backup dancers to prove it. Jack—who watches her change her hair, style and creative output—struggles with this both from a protective and judgemental point of view. Cooper does a great job of not making things too pretentious. Ally never has a moment where she is self-hating because of her career decisions—she’s just happy to be where she is. And Jack’s criticism, although valid, is never placed on a pedestal. In the mud of the movie this push and pull and the alcoholism are the main obstacles for the pair, and it was here that I realised I was in for something different from what the trailers suggested. The change in storytelling goals that begin here is where the film changes tonally and tests its audience’s dedication to the characters. If you’re like me and had no knowledge of narrative going in, it’s a bit of a shock to see such sombreness following an abundance of energy.
After such a zealous introduction, the marital problems and the addiction issues slow things down to a near halt. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises the question if A Star Is Born played its best cards too quickly. Although the writing and narrative stayed strong, the journey was somewhat lessened by the fact it came from a U-turn. It’s maybe my fault for wrong expectations, but there’s a distinct dip that lasts a long stretch of time and isn’t fully recovered even with the consistent quality of the storytelling.
Although we seemed to be on a downward track, I still cared. The more I learned about Jack’s past and where his issues stemmed from, the more I understood and worried for him. I was also still interested in seeing how the music industry churns out new stars and was open to hearing why that is or is not a bad thing depending on perspective. I think a success of the film was that although the situation was far from normal, none of it was unrelatable. Yes, these people are famous and their difficulties tie in to their careers, but when you strip it down there’s two troubles: one, loss of identity in trade for success; and two, not being able to leave the past behind long enough to be present and supportive in the moment.
Jack’s painful memories and lack of family stability have plagued his entire life and when his missteps embarrass Ally in professional environments, the guilt begins to seep in. Jack, who was once a symbol of hope for Ally, becomes more of a problem for her. As much as Ally, brilliant as she is, forgives and loves him no matter what, the pile up of pressure is overwhelming. Although Jack acts selfishly and takes a long time to realise he needs to change, he never truly made me dislike him; that’s where the balancing act of the characterisation makes a winner out of a troubled soul.
“Tell me something, boy. Aren’t you tired of trying to fill that void…”
Just when I thought I had everything down, the conclusion came out of left field with a sucker punch that took me out with no chance of getting back up. I wont be surprised if some people call the ending manipulative, because after a long period of filmmaking that wasn’t living up to its amazing initial markings, the finale hits like a ton of bricks. It’s Gaga’s moment to truly shine in the acting department (which she nails) and it’s an emotional bomb drop. The stepping-stones to it needed more logic and compulsion, but the effects of the outcome were pretty clear in the lump in my throat and the sniffles from my surrounding cinema rows. The tortured artist trope is given a fresh coat of paint, and the relieving statement of someone else’s internal pain not being anyone’s fault is a weight off the chest of the world in a time where our artists are dropping like flies.
A Star Is Born is a much more mixed bag than I was expecting, and everything it does it does well, from the hair-raising music to the intimate cinematography, it feels incredibly close to its subjects. It just struggles to patch those things together without one detracting from the other. But while being bogged down to an extent by a not-so-stellar second act, Cooper’s debut feature still eventually hits home with impressive character writing and musical numbers that don’t have to work hard to win you over.