One of the most talked about films of the last year took the form of the fourth remake of Hollywood classic A Star is Born. The newest instalment is directed and starred in by Bradley Cooper, as well as featuring Lady Gaga in her onscreen debut, Sam Elliot, Anthony Ramos, and Dave Chappelle among others. The film follows the relationship between a famous musician, Jack Maine (Cooper) and struggling musician Ally (Gaga). Enthralled with her talent, Jack shows Ally the way into the music industry, as his alcoholism starts to send his career in a downward spiral. As their relationship grows, the gulf between their prospects widens and strains their relationship. The film has been nominated for a a total of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been one of if not the most talked about film of the year.
I’d been putting off watching this film for a very long time. I knew its reputation, and I felt it deserved my undivided attention. I finally found the time yesterday, and I sat down to watch the film I had a gut feeling I was going love. Watching the trailer and the clips, I could tell it had that Begin Again/Sing Street quality about it; where characters and relationships are intertwined with the music, not parallel to. I was not disappointed. The two lead performers are fantastic. Bradley Cooper is downright shocking. Stunningly contrasting and vividly emotional in all the right moments, Cooper’s portrayal of good-guy-who’s-also-an-alcoholic is indescribably endearing and heartbreaking at the same time. You feel drawn to his smile in all its comfort and kindness while the drunken, stumbling image remains, fixed and firm, in your mind. He builds a wonderful emotional house of cards which I’ll expand on more later. Lady Gaga is strong in her film acting debut. She’s quite raw at moments, and she maybe starts off somewhat shaky, but she holds her character’s arc well. Her performance can likely be divided into two halves, pre-famous which is a little undercooked emotionally, and famous, which she nails. I’m not a massive fan of her in general, the flashy dressing and artificiality that I perceived in the way she tends to present herself, alongside her style of music which isn’t really to my taste, gave me little reason to like her. It’s refreshing, therefore, to see her take off the makeup and show us the bare bones of who she is through her character. That’s an important element of the film for me, the idea of authenticity, which I’ll go into more detail about later. The contrast between the two ends of her arc, which ends at a point closer to Lady Gaga in reality, becomes more potent through this. Her and Cooper’s relationship is a wonderful thing to watch as well, an exceptionally natural chemistry that does, again, start off a little shaky and becomes beautiful. If there’s an obvious vice in this film, it’s that the emotional triggers are a little too small. Subtlety might be the point, but it doesn’t read particularly well in moments that end up being pivotal. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention that possibly the best performance of the film was Sam Elliot in the role of Jack’s brother. The sibling/father-son relationship between them is gorgeous to watch, and Elliot’s relatively small part in the film does not detract from the incredible job he’s done of emoting. Cooper and Elliot do a fabulous job of reminding the viewer that, even in the scope of onscreen relationships, this is not just a love story.
The writing in this film is breathtaking, both in terms of the screenplay and the music. The soundtrack for the film is wonderful, the majority of the songs on which are solid gold. I’ve already sort of mentioned, but I have to reiterate the use of the music as a mode of bringing out character, not just as an incidental that tags on to the film. That’s the differentiating factor between this film and films like Sing Street and Begin Again. Films about people who make music tend to use the music they make to tell part of their story, and that’s what causes the contextual emotional connect you form with the music. The screenplay is equally exceptional. The dialogues build you cathedrals to grow your thoughts, delivered from, sometimes, the least likely places. There are metaphorical gems in the writing of this film that I will carry with me for a long time.
But the thing that makes this film more notable than, indeed, most, is the way it treats it’s many thematic conversations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is so much more than a love story. The film talks about addiction, it talks about corruption of talent, and it paints a portrait of fame, in ways styles of persuasion i have never seen before. The emotional house of cards I referred to concerning Bradley Cooper is an incredible way to depict addiction in all its terrible glory. The fact that you see Jack be such a hopeful, kind, sensitive person makes it all the more heart-wrenching to see him stumble around as if in the dark. There’s a constant knowledge that, at some point, Jack’s addiction is going to screw him, but you’re so attached to the optimistic, gentlemanly persona he lives in when he’s sober that you commit despite knowing. That’s the house of cards. Faith and love built on a foundation too weak to support itself.
Almost as heartbreaking for me, though undeniably less materially potent, was Ally’s change in musical style. She broke into the scene arm in arm with Jack whose message was simple: tell them what you want to say, and she delivers on that message writing some really insightful and heartfelt lyrics which rockets her into the spotlight. To see that incredible musical gift being led down the commercial pop route by a villainous producer is one of the most tragic things that happen in the film. The flash over quality trade in the music industry is an infuriating thing on it’s own, and it’s made even more so through watching Jack’s heartbroken reaction to Ally’s transformation from a genuine, poetic artist to a performer. That corruption of real talent is painful to watch. It’s telling of the overall picture of fame in the 21st century, where real things are less important than things that sell, case in point Ally’s and Jack’s anti-parallel career trajectories, and the effect that not selling can have on a life is unfathomable.
I’m writing this review two days before the Oscars happen, so I’m probably going to edit this afterwards but I will be very disappointed in film if this film is not heartily recognised. The fact that it lost out at the Golden Globes to films like Bohemian Rhapsody perplexes me to no end, and I certainly hope the Academy makes a different call. Until I saw this film I was adamant that John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place was film of the year (a film which, incidentally was not even nominated for Best Picture, which ought to say something about my pre-existing faith in the Academy seeing as Black Panther was nominated for some reason), a perspective I did not think would be turned particularly easily. My expectations were wholly subverted by this film, however. A stunningly told and potently performed masterpiece, this was undoubtedly film of the year for me. There’s something old fashioned about it (a feature brought out by the fact that it’s not the first time this movie’s been done) while rooted in a firmly modern context. I can’t possibly give Bradley Cooper high enough praise for the job he’s done directing, and I tip my hat to all those involved for the creation of a truly exceptional film.
EDIT: I’m absolutely shell-shocked at the lack of accolade. Obviously it shouldn’t matter, they made an incredible film that they should be proud of, but the idea that the only thing it won for was ‘Shallow’ is just not just. This was, for me, film of the year, and, without much doubt, director of the year (Bradley Cooper, incidentally, not even nominated for Best Director). I certainly hope that the lack of recognition at the Academy Awards does not deter anyone from watching this film.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 91/100 Aryamaan’s Score –