There are a number of revelations at the heart of this, the fourth version of A Star Is Born. The first is that, yes, Lady Gaga can act. It isn't a surprise that she performs the songs with gusto and skill but she also proves more than capable as a dramatic performer. The second is that Bradley Cooper is a very good director indeed, producing a musical that is simultaneously intimate and epic. It is as surprising a turn in 2018 as John Krasinski (aka Jim from the
For those unfamiliar with it, the plot concerns two stars, one whose trajectory is on the up, the other on a downward spiral. Jack is a country superstar but also an alcoholic suffering from tinnitus. He stumbles into a bar after one performance and finds Ally, waitress by day, bar singer by night. They fall for each other and Jack takes her on tour where she is discovered and becomes a star in her own right.
The film juxtaposes the more intimate moments between Ally and Jack with the epic sweep of its live performances (mostly performed at actual festivals, the filmmakers stealing moments between the real life artists). The first hour of A Star Is Born is mesmerising, moving through the early stages of the couple's relationship as well as the blossoming of Ally's career. The cracks are apparent even then that will play out in the second half of the narrative. Once the film begins to separate its heroes the creaking sound of a well-told story begin to take its effect. Ally's journey to pop superstardom feels rushed and oddly-critical, as if there is no room for art within the genre. And yet in its exploration of alcoholism the film remains a painful melancholic viewing experience, one that manages to keep a foot firmly in the real world.
One of the most fascinating features of this film is that fully-formed characters flit in and out of its peripheral vision. The likes of Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos and Rafi Gavron all have moments where they break through before they retreat back into the background. It makes A Star is Born a more compelling, interesting movie. But the film is about three performances - Gaga, Cooper and Sam Elliott. As strong as Gaga is (and she will likely be a contender for the Best Actress award at next year's Oscar ceremony) this is Cooper's show, as he directs, co-writes and stars, giving himself the most interesting narrative strand. And there is no denying that the star of The Hangover has emerged as genuine talent. Yet it is Sam Elliott who lingers after the credits, and he is devastatingly good as Jack's brother, a powerful presence who elevates every scene he is in.
A Star Is Born is so near to being a great film. It has a number of outstanding performances and a first half that doesn't put a foot wrong. And yet it seems to lose its way, proving a clunkier experience then it needs to be. But when the film works, it is an exceptional, compelling viewing experience.