Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is a convenience store chocolate bar: an immediately, immensely satisfying distraction, a rush to the head that settles into to the bloodstream before crashing into a lull. It’s a mindful distraction that’s positively transparent in its intentions and so free of irony that it suggests something almost pathologically indifferent to criticism. It’s a series of contradictions: muscular and ephemeral, expressionistic and literal. And it somehow possesses the gift of being interesting while telling an essential but trite narrative. It’s an achievement in polarity; familiar but transgressive enough.
That dichotomy is signaled in the opening, pre-title card sequence, where country rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is seen shredding a guitar in front of a vast arena crowd. Shot by Darren Aronofsky’s standby cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the numerous scenes of Maine performing operate in fluid conjunction with the music. Parallel this to Ally’s (Lady Gaga) opening passage. She’s a banquet hall server who, in the first scene, must don a pair of gloves to throw out the trash. These scenes are immediately more familiar, capturing a world-weary inelegance that comes with your usual day-in-day-out that was seen in Libatique-lensed films like Black Swan and especially The Wrestler. The large, vivid red of the film’s title are laid atop a long shot of Ally as she enters a wet, gray cityscape, in what becomes a stamp of tradition – a film remade three times over – entering modernity. It sounds ridiculous, is ridiculous, and yet somehow endures on the basis of its outright sincerity.
In one of those unarrangable coincidences that only happen in the movies, Maine ends up in a local watering hole, a drag bar. As he plants himself at the bar, he observes Ally perform “La Vie en Rose”. It’s a watershed moment that immediately sobers up the alcoholic, prompting Maine to spend the night with Ally at another bar and then, eventually, a grocery store parking lot. Their night out is the film’s most electrifying passage, in what’s clearly an actor’s showcase for Cooper and Gaga. But it’s Cooper’s formalism that surprised me. His numerous but measured use of close-up ends up informing an impossibly intimate chemistry between the two actors. Gestures like putting on fake eyebrows, Gaga’s hand in Cooper’s, or a finger across the bridge of the actress’ nose are vividly rendered.
This film is, of course, about a singer’s ascendence to fame and to Lady Gaga’s credit, she convincingly sells the big moment where she’s invited to perform alongside Maine on-stage. The video of her performance goes viral and she’s eventually presented with the opportunity to tour with her own album. The minor modulations that contemporize the old narrative are rarely anything more than surface changes; a gleaning look at the music industry’s by-committee attempts to sanitize and brand Ally’s image, along with the shifting landscape of becoming a global product. And initially, the domestic tension that emerges between Maine and Ally come across as trite and ill-conceived. Similarly, Maine’s familial strife, involving his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliot), are mostly vague and thinly sketched.
But these actors are so convincing, the craft formidable enough, and music so fundamentally catchy that this increasingly bitter pill remains easy enough to swallow. And the good-will generated by the film’s incredible opening queer aesthetic, along with the agreeable tenor of every performer, makes A Star is Born terribly difficult to stay mad at. It’s likeable, a swooning melodrama about love, the difficulties of enduring past demons, and redefining expectations when success doesn’t produce eternal happiness. It’s a narrative that endures because it touches upon something so elemental that it’s impossible not to see a piece of yourself in it, even if every octave doesn’t hit quite the register you’d hope.