There’s a song we hear on several occasions during the latest incarnation of A Star Is Born that begins with the lyric “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” It’s Bradley Cooper’s rock star character Jackson Maine doing the singing of what is clearly one of his most famous, go-to songs, and the idea behind that simple statement speaks volumes not just in the context of the movie, but with the way a lot of us are feeling these days.
Although most of the music in A Star Is Born is written by some combination of Cooper (who also co-wrote and directed the movie), co-star Lady Gaga and Lukas Nelson (who fronts the band Promise of the Real, which appears as Maine’s backing band in the film), this particular tune was written by Jason Isbell, and every time Maine sings it, we hope he takes his own advice and gives up some of his most self-destructive habits.
This remarkable fourth cinematic telling of the story of a veteran musician giving a leg up to an up-and-coming singer only to see her surpass him in both popularity and as a person, works as a deeply felt romantic journey, a story of artistic expression, a family drama, and as a musical in which the songs aren’t simply background music or catchy tunes; they are tuneful embodiments of the primary story being told.
Cooper is startlingly convincing as the hard-drinking Maine, whose wind- and sun-burned face is matched only by his gravelly speaking voice and surprisingly tender singing style. It’s sometimes difficult to pin down Maine’s musical style—it seems to drift from folk and country to Southern rock and guitar-heavy, harder songs. After a particularly blistering gig, Maine is desperate to find a bar in a town he doesn’t know well. He stumbles into what turns out to be a drag bar where a cis-female singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) gets a chance to showcase her real vocal talents in a venue that caters to a lip-synch crowd. Maine may be loaded, but he knows a great voice when he hears one, and the two spend the night talking about life and music and busted dreams (she’s been told by more than one record company type that they love her sound but not so much her look). But after sampling a few of her lyrics—both written and spontaneously generated—he’s convinced she’s the real deal.
Their banter together is nothing but pure chemistry. They lean into each other, partly because his hearing is failing and he needs to have her repeat things quite often, but it makes all of their exchanges more intimate and authentic. He takes her home but leaves her with the promise of getting her to his show the following night; she relents and eventually attends with her best friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos), and before she realizes it, she being coaxed from the side of the stage to the microphone to sing the very song the two of them wrote together the night before. Few moments in A Star Is Born are as hair raising as that short walk she takes to centerstage, where Maine is waiting for her with her song cued-up and ready to go. If you don’t get a chill and smile big at that moment, you have a busted soul.
One of the many secret weapons in the film is Sam Elliott, who plays Bobby, whom we think is simply Maine’s longtime tour manager, responsible for so many more things than simply making sure each show gets off without a hitch. We eventually discover that he’s Maine’s much older brother, who used to be a musician but didn’t quite have the appeal that Jackson eventually garnered. There are a few conversations between the two about Jackson stealing Bobby’s voice, which is likely a reference to Jackson taking over the singing duties in the family, but it’s clear that the stealing is also literally—the deeper, more twangy voice that Cooper uses here is clearly meant to sound like Elliott, which is eerily does quite often. Cooper’s singing is genuinely impressive, but it’s Gaga who can belt out a song as if her life depended on it and break your heart every time. Her Ally is a woman who has clearly given up on her singing dreams, despite living with a father (Andrew Dice Clay, who yet again delivers a sincere and lovely performance, as he did in Blue Jasmine) who never stop relaying stories of his days when he was reportedly a crooner with more raw talent that Sinatra.
Maine and Ally perform together on stage for the remainder of his tour, and they quickly fall in love, which inspires them to write more songs together, while she catches the attention of a well-known manager/producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron), who promises to bring her true self to audiences everywhere and then proceeds to dress her, change her hair color, and turn her into a pop princess (he really turns her into a version of Lady Gaga). It’s clear that director Cooper (who co-wrote with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) is striving for authenticity in his portrayal of the rock n roll lifestyle—the Grammies, a “Saturday Night Live” appearance, and various real-world music festivals all play key roles in this story. The movie never shies away from the destructive side of the music world—from internal and external forces—and Maine’s heavy drinking threatens to derail their personal and creative partnership all at once.
As a filmmaker, Cooper shows a confident and prepared hand that I hope stays as self-assured moving forward. A lot of the credit for the beautifully textured look of the film goes to director of photography Matthew Libatique, who allows his camera to linger and pan across the characters long enough to notice what they’re wearing or how weary their faces are, telling us more about these people than dialogue in many cases. Not that the screenplay over-explains anything. Maine is given a loose backstory about a father who was a role model, drinking buddy and shit caregiver; Ally’s life is a bit simpler, with a dreamer of a father, who instilled in her just enough confidence to know she’s good, but not quite enough to overcome the nay-sayers in her life. These two together fuel and support each other in such remarkable ways that it makes it especially cruel when his drinking gets the best of him and begins to threaten her fame.
It would be a mistake not to talk about how phenomenal the music in A Star Is Born truly is. Memorable, sure, but the songs also dig deep into the psyches of these characters to let us know where they’ve come from and how they feel about each other. Thankfully, the music doesn’t seeks to summarize what’s going on, instead opting to open up the emotion and enhance the moment, whether it be romantic or tragic. It’s near impossible not to be impressed by the way Cooper and Lady Gaga’s voices mesh and play off each other, her taking the angelic, soulful high notes, with him harmonizing below her.
Even if you’re familiar with any of the other film versions of A Star Is Born, Cooper and his team have built in so many singular moments that is feels like a fresh account of these elements, from the consistently impressive acting level of Lady Gaga to Cooper’s use of comedians in key roles, including Clay, Dave Chappelle as his best friend Noodles, and Eddie Griffin as a preacher friend of Noodles. Each of these characters is used to add levity to certain scenes without resorting to joke telling. The unsung hero of the film is Elliott whose shaky relationship with his brother is both a symptom and the cure to Jackson’s deep-seated issues.
The film doesn’t treat its substance abuse storyline as an afterthought or crutch; Jackson even attends rehab after a particularly nasty drunken incident, and it’s one of the best sequences in the entire movie. A Star Is Born is layered, fulfilling, and moving to the point where only singing can properly capture the emotional complexity of some of the film’s heavier moments. Easily one of the finest films of the year, and I can say that with authority because I’ve seen it three times already.
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