“A Star is Born” May Hit Familiar Notes, but it Hits Them So Damned Perfectly

All that shit starts in “E.”Revival by Stephen King, 2014

There’s a perfect storm at work in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. There shouldn’t be, but a lot of these seemingly disparate elements come together to make something so goddamned good that I had trouble writing this up (totally threw out one review that got too twisted up in the cult of celebrity and the monkey-on-the-back of addiction) but this film needs to be talked about and it can be summed up in 60 of its seconds.

The final 60 seconds, to be exact.

There’s nothing new about this, but that kind of winds up being the point. This is, at its core, a story about stories and how we tell them. This is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, rolled up in beefy guitar rock and soaring Lady Gaga vocals that shade over  the thinly hidden statement behind a veneer of song. Bradley Cooper’s character Jack Maine has a philosophy when it comes to all of this – that there are only 12 notes in an octave and then the cycle repeats. There’s no new way to combine them, but there can be something powerful in how you arrange them to say what you need to. And he loves the way Ally, played by Lady Gaga, sees them, how she gives all of herself to these statements. The cult of celebrity isn’t the portrayed as the goal here, it’s the enemy of of personality and voice in the industry.

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And what a voice Bradley Cooper has brought to this. He’s playing to the crowd, using a safe story that does absolutely nothing new in order to execute it to perfection with the precision of a surgeon. His acting background allows him to cater less to the visuals (not that they aren’t great, they just could have been a step higher) and more to the performances and in doing so he portrays not only what he wants but draws a performance out of Lady Gaga that can floor a viewer. She’s done acting performances before, and one could argue her whole public career has been an acting gig, but they’ve always skewed to that image of her that is blatant in the public eye: the done up, bright-haired leader of “little monsters” that lives viciously and as though sketched on paper. lady-gagaHere, though, Cooper strips all of that away and for the first time you see a woman, sometimes even just a girl, behind the carefully constructed image. She is incredibly honest throughout, even though we follow her to what is essentially a low-brow “Lady-Gaga-lite” sort of star, and she absolutely kills this performance from minute one.

The aforementioned lite pop star plot means that we’re not just getting the advertised music. The marketing for this film has made sure to put it’s best foot forward, songs like “Black Eyes” and “Shallow” being sort of safe but in an uplifting, fun, and appealing way while the cringe-worthy (on purpose, it’s for the story, don’t worry) sounds of songs like “Is That Alright?” can drive one absolutely insane if heard outside of the context of the story. When these two work together, however, there’s sort of a magic to it as each gets to explore the full range of their vocal talent. The music for this isn’t an experiment for Cooper and Gaga, it’s a victory lap after they figured out they matched excellently.

Amidst the myriad of cameos from other pop stars and small roles we have one little standout in Sam Elliot, who plays Bobby Maine (elder brother of Jack). And really, what isn’t Sam Elliot great in? There’s a resigned but resentful skew to his performance while he helplessly tries to contain Jack’s demons, to help him with his problems instead of ignore them, and to be blunt with him when he needs it but the only real power he has is the idea that neither of them should be striving to be their father. He sees Ally as a way out, a salvation for Jack if the man can just accept it and be happy in what he’s found, make better choices to hold onto it.

Holy hell, I almost forgot Dave Chappelle is in this for a whopping five minutes. He does little here, but he comes at a pivot point in the movie as an ex-musician that is close enough to Jack that no one minds him passing out on their lawn, the whole family wakes up and just accepts it as part of a regular routine. They even let Ally know he’s there and Chappelle’s character (for some reason named “Noodles,” just go with it) assists them in taking on a large new chapter in their lives. That’s all he’s there to do, to serve as a plot point in this greater narrative, but it works and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s nice to see Chappelle do something again.

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Ultimately the main complaint with the film will be that there just isn’t much new material here. This is the 4th time this film has been made and each version updates the setting and the music but doesn’t do a lot else with the story. And that’s ok for this because of the execution, the dedication to making every well-known moment of this whole thing not only palatable but elating. I said at the beginning of this that the film could be summed up in its final 60 seconds and I stand by that. The camera is stationary, the lighting is bright, nothing about it should be insanely interesting but the performance of Cooper and Gaga in that brief minute is one of the most harrowing, emotional, and impactful moments of the film. Up until that point I’d been loving this whole experience, ready to call this a great film that would probably get some nominations during awards season, but that final bit floored me. It took me a couple of minutes to get out to my car and begin driving away before it hit me completely and I lost it at just the sheer beauty of that whole moment. It is both real and unreal, otherworldly and still something you might walk in on between two friends who adore each other.

This isn’t a story of a rising star, this is the story of a rising star because it hits those notes perfectly. Stephen King wrote a line a few years ago, “All that shit starts in E.” He wasn’t wrong, it all does when you’re playing in the right genre, but he cited it as a thing that can be wonderful if pulled off. Jack Maine looks at it the same way, that there are only 12 notes to tell your story with and every arrangement has already been done so you have to use your voice and show your vision while people are listening. And we should be listening, because this is a first film that should not be missed and won’t be ignored. What he’s done here is impressive, and what Gaga does is transcendent. Don’t rob yourself of this one.

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