Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
If you had told me two years ago that Bradley Cooper would be writing and directing a remake of the already-remade-to-death A Star Is Born and had cast Lady Gaga in it to play opposite him in the Judy Garland role, I probably would have laughed at you. Had you also told me that it would be receiving rapturous praise after it premiered at Venice, I would have probably told you to stop bullshitting me, and that it had all the makings of a vanity project gone wrong, the kind of thing that we’d laugh about in 20 years in a retrospective on VH1 when we wanted to explain to our children that the decade was silly and not just when we slid into fascism.
It is with this mindset that I walked in to see the film, and it was totally refuted by the film’s end. Cooper has something special on his hands here. A Star Is Born may very well prove to be one of the decade’s best musicals, barring Tom Hooper’s Cats being a collection of cat videos instead of an adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
The first hour of A Star Is Born makes the case for Cooper as an elite in a more convincing fashion than Joe Flacco did when he led a mediocre Ravens team to the Lombardi trophy. When we first see Jackson Maine (Cooper), he’s taking the stage in front of a throng of excited fans, chasing pills with a shot of whiskey, empty, cold, alone as he’s in front of thousands of people. He’s a country singer, but not of the pop country persuasion, and he believes in his music, even if he doesn’t necessarily like it all of the time. He’s losing his hearing, thanks to years of hard living on the road, and his brother (an utterly astonishing Sam Elliott).
After wrapping up his show, he asks his driver to take him to the nearest bar, and it just so happens to be a drag bar, where the Queens are performing for the evening. He has a good time, and has an even better time with the liquor, but a young woman takes the stage in between numbers and belts out an incredible Piaf cover. Jackson’s awed and brought to tears by the woman’s voice, and he has to know who she is. Her name is Ally (Lady Gaga), and she lives with her dad (Andrew Dice Clay), acting as a house mom to him and his employees/friends at the limo company he owns, and works as a waitress, but dreams for more.
The two spend the night together talking about music and success, and Ally breaks through all of the walls he’s put up: She sees him as a person, not just an autograph, and her voice just drives him mad. They get into a bar fight, and Jackson patches her up with a bag of frozen peas as she starts to compose, off the cuff, a song that stops him in his tracks. It’s then that he realizes that he’s falling in love with this woman in a way that he isn’t entirely prepared for, and he invites her to a show of his that he’s playing in a few towns over. She’s initially hesitant — she has work and all — but eventually changes her mind, and arrives backstage just as he’s starting a song. He manages to coax her onto the stage in front of hundreds, and she stuns the crowd with the song that they’d written together the night before. And, thanks to a YouTube video that captured the even, a star is born, and the two cement their relationship. There’s a hushed wonder about these moments, and god damn if he and Gaga just don’t have some of the best on-screen chemistry in years. You believe him when he looks at her with awe, and you believe her astonishment at this man coming into her life. It helps when you have a man like Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky, and Spike Lee’s cinematographer of choice, lensing the picture and giving it a true Hollywood feel. It’s emotional spectacle done to pitch perfection, and Cooper earns his keep.
The back half of the film — detailing Jackson’s fall as Ally’s star only gets brighter — just can’t keep up with those opening moments, and the addiction drama that has defined each and every one of these movies is at its barest elementals here. The prior films at least had something in them to cut the maudlin natures of the male figure’s ultimate end, but Roth gives Cooper the slightest portrayal of alcoholism and embarrassment of them all. Worse, Gaga’s transition away from the music she likes doing to the business-oriented pop nonsense that her label wants her to put out hampers her musically in a way that I don’t know if Cooper anticipated. It’s a wonder she signed off on some of the poppier material, given how far below her station it is, and I had a pretty hard time believing that her character, even with the heavy lifting that Roth tries to do to stress that she’s doing this because of her dad’s pressure and to help him fulfill her dreams through her, would ultimately go down that road. There are a few other small weird things — namely that I kind of hate how the ending is structured (though those final moments work like a motherfucker), and that the pacing is a bit slow — but these things, honestly, only suffer because of how excellent the first hour is.
A Star Is Born might not be a total home run for Cooper, but a triple is pretty damn solid for your first career at-bat in the majors. He takes a solid and tried-and-true Hollywood framework and damn near makes the best version of it to ever hit a screen, and Gaga is a powerhouse whose strong work here makes a great case for her having a long and storied career as an actress (you’re finally free from Robert Rodriguez, Lady, hooray!).
I can guarantee you this film will win an Oscar, and not just for its excellent original soundtrack — that prize will go to Elliott, and it will be justly deserved, as a single look of his here communicates more pathos than entire films that I’ve seen at this festival. There’s nothing better than watching two performers and artists elevate each other to new heights, and in a way, we’re watching the rebirth of two stars: Bradley Cooper, the crowd-pleasing director, and Lady Gaga, the accomplished actress. What an exciting future for the both of them.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.