Better late than never and with the 2019 Academy Awards fast approaching, there’s no better time to explore a film worthy of recognition on the biggest night of the awards season calendar. For your consideration please…
Mental illness and addiction have a damaging ripple effect, and those around the people who suffer from it suffer almost equally. Ally is one such victim who, despite becoming the titular star thanks to a chance meeting with veteran celebrity musician Jackson Maine, sticks by the man who believed in her even when he drags them both down to their lowest points.
In most regards this is a love story. A romance blossoms as a young woman comes into her own and achieves her dream. The drama however, keeps the story from drifting into fairytale. The series of events that shape the first half of the film are optimistic for the most part, but there are frequent signs that this is not a sustainable relationship even if there is undeniable and believable love between them. Jackson is an alcoholic and drug addict, using these vices as a survival mechanism. Bradley Cooper makes one of the finest recent directorial debuts with the third remake of a classic Hollywood tale, and his performance may well be his best in a career that sees his standard escalate year on year.
But fittingly Lady Gaga is the show-stopper here. In her biggest acting role to date, she’s proven that she can handle some seriously weighty material and her character of Ally charts dramatic highs and lows in her rise to fame. In fact, her professional rise is rather effortless when compared to the personal blows she takes. There’s a sense that her love for Jackson, authentic though it may be, is forever tied to him being the first real influence that took notice of her talents. His paving the way for her to reach stardom creates perhaps an unpayable emotional debt. The toxic nature of their relationship stems from Jackson’s continuous battle with his own demons, and the ease with which he succumbs to substance abuse leads to some damaging consequences.
Paired with the searing performances of its leads are some wonderfully poignant musical numbers. Many of these sequences were filmed in front of actual live audiences on stage, and Cooper makes sure we’re right there alongside the characters as they take on their larger-than-life roles. The camera rarely strays too far from their faces and its always moving. There’s a dynamic and even at times chaotic approach to how the songs are shot. Usually the reaction is more important than the action. Additionally, we rarely see the crowds that are being performed in front of. Most of the time the audience doesn’t matter.
The further into the film we go, the less Jackson performs and the greater the emphasis falls on Ally. Jackson’s disappearance from the spotlight doesn’t need to be addressed. His battle with a certain level of responsibility or even possessiveness is front and center, though places him at odds with Ally’s manager Rez, who tries hard to leave Jackson behind in his attempt to build Ally’s career. There are sincere moments of conflict between the two lovers, to such an extent that there are times when we must, as viewers, consider why this relationship continues to exist. When Jackson finally takes responsibility for his own actions and behaviour, the film embraces the tragedy it’s telling. It may be titled A Star is Born, but its arguable that this is even its central premise.
In fact, Ally is often left to deal with the emotional baggage of those around her despite the extremely steep hill she’s climbing herself. As a character, she’s admirable and quickly relatable. We see her working her dead-end job, cleaning up after her father in the home that they share, breaking up with a clingy boyfriend over the phone. This is a girl whose life takes a sharp turn but before that we get a glimpse of the life she currently lives, and it’s rather familiar (appealing to a younger audience that’s already been won over by the film’s household name). There’s something topical about the way in which Ally is later left to manage the emotions of a man whose behaviour can’t be condoned even if his condition is cause for sympathy, though the script doesn’t quite embrace this aspect.
The first time we see Ally perform on stage might be the film’s greatest moment both from a narrative standpoint and a technical one. “Shallow” is a worthy contender for Best Song at this year’s Oscars, and it’d be a shock to see it fall short of victory. The rising tension as Ally goes back and forth on whether to take her moment and step out onto the stage is masterfully handled, and her eventually embracing of that moment is A Star is Born‘s great triumph. Both Ally and Jackson have accompanying subplots that, by the time they share the stage, have rounded them both as humans outside of their surface-level status. Jackson’s relationship with his brother Bobby brings with it a superb supporting performance from the ever reliable Sam Elliott.
The film’s first half is stronger than its second. Later, Ally’s rise is surprisingly abrupt. Yet the build-up to its most devastating moment is earned, even though one might question whether Jackson’s very public mishap would ever be allowed to happen in the way it does. That said, this is an easy to forgive stretch of credulity and the film transcends its glossy exterior to leave a much grimmer, lasting impression. The musical numbers are solid, and even if not every track is particularly memorable, there’s something to be said for Cooper’s willingness to let scenes play out for the length of the track rather than cutting them short just to fit the needs of the narrative.
Occasionally brisk in the lead-up to minor story beats, Cooper can be forgiven for the occasional hiccup because he’s crafted a film with two powerhouse central performances. Ally and Jackson are extremely likeable and their relationship is wholly convincing throughout. We go on a journey with them and are more than happy to do so because there’s a verisimilitude to the proceedings that makes it all the more rewarding a journey. Key to this believability is the shedding of the Lady Gaga persona. What’s revealed underneath is someone who it’s so easy for the viewer to both relate to and ultimately fall for as Ally’s just a genuinely beautiful soul and it’s hard not to see her as a some sort of reflection of the real-life Stefani Germanotta, such is the honesty in her performance.
Cooper has crafted a wonderful film, equal parts uplifting and emotionally gut-wrenching. It’s one that feels relevant and even timely in its approach to shining a spotlight on the concept of celebrity and all that comes with it. Most importantly the film highlights the damage caused by addiction and the inevitable effects it has on those left lingering just outside of the glare of that very same spotlight.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
A Star is Born is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download now.