Review – ‘A Star is Born’ is a musical delight that comes within a whisker of greatness

Poster for 2018 romantic musical A Star is Born

Genre: Musical
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 5th October 2018
Runtime: 136 minutes
Director: Bradley Cooper
Writer: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Rafi Gavron
Synopsis: A fading country singer discovers the musical talents of a waitress and helps catapult her to the stardom that she deserves, while alcoholism leaves his own career in tatters.

 

 

There’s a sense of expectation that surrounds any movie minted as an early Oscar frontrunner. It’s the sort of hype that can completely scupper a film that isn’t quite up to that level of acclaim once the dust of early morning festival screenings has settled. A Star is Born, in which Bradley Cooper steps behind the camera for the first time and Lady Gaga has her first major role in front of it, mercifully has all of the tools to live up to that meaty advance buzz. It’s a hugely accomplished and entertaining film with moments of true genius, but it always seems to be reaching for something slightly beyond its reach.

The story is as it has always been, with the super talented Ally (Gaga) dragged from her menial job doldrums into the stratosphere of superstardom by country legend Jackson Maine (Cooper). Soon, however, she has netted herself a slimy British manager (Rafi Gavron) and has been transformed into a catchy pop princess. Meanwhile, Jackson’s alcoholism is sending his own career in a downward spiral, creating friction with his brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott).

A Star is Born is very aware that it’s the fourth outing for this tale, but it chooses not to stretch too far in breaking the mould and instead embodies the gentle beauty of classic Hollywood. The title card is designed in Old Hollywood style and Gaga directly homages her predecessor Judy Garland with a brief rendition of a verse from ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, as well as referencing concerns about her nose very similar to those that surrounded Barbra Streisand – star of the 1970s take on this story. The film’s pacing is deliberate and measured, evoking classic charm, even if it often feels like a recycled version of every cinematic rags-to-riches tale ever made.

Much of the movie’s ultimate success – of which there is plenty – can be laid at the feet of its leading duo. Gaga is a terrific acting discovery and is utterly convincing as a rough diamond of an ingenue, boundlessly talented but entirely unable to break into a music world inhabited solely by manufactured, statuesque models. It’s impossible to distrust a word she says or a line she sings, whether as the timid waitress she is at the beginning of the film or the global megastar she eventually becomes.

Her show-stopping vocals, of course, provide the film with its much-discussed highlight – a scene in which she joins Cooper on stage for an impromptu performance of her song ‘Shallow’, which we previously heard her sing acapella to Cooper in a goosebump-inducing scene in a supermarket car park. The ‘Shallow’ duet is a moment of genuinely transcendent musical cinema – akin to the bravura finale of Whiplash – as the palpable chemistry between Cooper and Gaga crackles in time with a certified banger of a track that seems likely to walk to the Best Original Song Oscar without much competition.

But in order for the film to work, the other half of the narrative, opposite Gaga, needs to work as well. Thankfully, Cooper proves adept on both sides of the camera and keeps A Star is Born rattling along the tracks, even in the rather more languorous second half of the story. While Ally becomes an increasingly en vogue pop star, he self-destructs in a haze of whiskey and narcotics, culminating in a coke-addled benefit gig and the genuinely horrifying awards show breakdown that will be familiar to viewers of previous Star is Born films. Cooper is haggard and impressive, even through a near-parodic Southern drawl borrowed from co-star Elliott, who himself provides the film with at least one emotional high point and is also destined for the awards race.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in musical romance A Star is Born
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in musical romance A Star is Born

Although A Star is Born is a consistently absorbing and well-made film, it constantly feels as if it’s reaching out in vain for the quality of its stunning first act. When you’ve already reached the crescendo, the only way is down and, although there are scattered moments of genius in the rest of the movie, there’s nothing to match the unbridled emotion and potency of ‘Shallow’. The theme of Ally selling out for success is skilfully evoked, most notably in a grotesque Saturday Night Live performance, but the friction it causes between her and Jackson feels a little crowded out by the necessary story beats of the Star is Born template.

None of that formula, though, minimises A Star is Born as a powerhouse musical romance and a stellar directorial debut from Cooper. It’s a film that benefits enormously from lightning bolt chemistry between the two leads, as well as a supporting cast that finds room to add colour to the world in the shape of wonderfully lewd drag queens and evil Brits. It might not comfortably maintain the level of greatness that it attains in its opening act, but it does feel like a glossy throwback to a bygone era of Hollywood grandeur – and an entertaining throwback at that.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

This year has its Oscar frontrunner. A Star is Born is a big, glamorous musical that brings to mind the classic era of Hollywood with the help of two intensely charismatic performances from Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. It reaches its zenith after only half an hour with one of the best scenes of the last few years, but continues to be a gripping tale of one star in ascendance and another falling drunkenly from the sky.

It doesn’t have the immediate greatness that it strains to achieve, but it delivers charm and emotion in spades.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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