A Star is Born review from Vanity Fair:
When it hits its highest, most resonant notes, Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born—starring the director alongside pop icon Lady Gaga—achieves a triumphant, romantic ache that is often just what we want to experience at the movies. The film, which screened here at the Toronto International Film Festival after a buzzy opening in Venice, is solidly traditional without feeling staid or overly familiar. That’s tricky for any big, earnest romantic drama, and even trickier when the story has been told three previous times on-screen, most recently in a 1976 film starring Barbra Streisand. Yet Cooper and his radiant co-star more than pull it off, crafting a three-hanky melodrama that’s somehow fresh, modern, and vital.
Gaga has a Golden Globe award for acting, so she’s not exactly a newcomer. A Star Is Born nevertheless plays as a striking debut, a consummate show-woman finally revealing the full gradient and natural ease of her talents. (Well, who knows; maybe she can juggle, too.) Of course, when her character, Ally—a waitress who moonlights as a cabaret singer at a gay club—lets loose with Gaga’s famous contralto bellow, we’re seeing the pop star we’ve long known and loved. But Gaga is also a real actress, turning in a fluid and intuitive performance that seamlessly matches those of her more seasoned co-stars. (Sam Elliott is also in the film, to nice effect. So too, oddly, is Andrew Dice Clay.)
As Ally and Cooper’s grizzled, hard-drinking alt-country music star, Jackson Maine, tumble into love and career together, Gaga finds nuanced ways to communicate Ally’s timidity and her strength, how the awed hesitancy of leaning into a dream maybe finally coming true is matched, or rather surpassed, by a deep-seated conviction in her talent. Gaga, like Cher before her, proves that acting is just another conduit through which to channel her innate (and also hard won, I’m sure) genius for entertaining. Maybe the singing is a little sturdier than the acting at this point, but in A Star Is Born, she shows such exhilarating, mostly-there-already promise.
And boy does she have a scene partner in Cooper, who gives maybe the performance of his career. (All while directing the damn thing, too!) Jackson is a pickled mess, a self-destructive shambles who creaks with sadness over a bitter past. But he’s also haloed in decency; Jackson isn’t mean or vindictive. He’s maybe cruel in a scene or two, but we understand where it’s coming from. And Cooper is careful to show Jackson’s genuine contrition, his yearning not to inflict his own pain on those around him and the hurt of it all when he fails. With its swallowed growl and staggering gait, Cooper’s performance is a big one, but it doesn’t overwhelm. The totality of what Cooper is doing exists in proportion to everything around him, and he and Gaga flow with perfect, earthy chemistry. I’m surprised they didn’t fall madly in love while making the movie.
It’s just such a warm and generous thing. Cooper and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, shoot in lush, saturated tones, the bleary swirl of concert scenes giving way to intimate, closely filmed exchanges offstage. What great faces these two have! One fresh and alert and curious, the other crinkling with weary kindness. Cooper’s script—co-written by Eric Roth and Will Fetters—has a compassionate roundness, showing an affection for nearly every character, from fast-talkin’ New Yawk dads to supportive drag queens. (Willam Belli and D.J. “Shangela” Pierce are in this movie, folks.) The romance at the center—corkscrewing up and down as Ally’s career explodes and Jackson sinks further into his despair—maintains its visceral truth throughout. It’s a connection convincingly forged in the making of other things, strengthened by a shared need to express the emotional currents of being alive in as pure and persuasive a way as possible.
Which I suppose brings me to the real red meat of this movie: the music. Gaga and Lukas Nelson have composed a sampling of songs that exist comfortably in the environment of the movie, but could also (and likely will) stand on their own. Cooper has a pleasant twang when he sings, projecting a melancholy, afternoon-y vibe that brings to mind Crazy Heart. (Which Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for. Hm.) Gaga does a fun rendition of “La Vie en Rose” at a gay bar, a nod to this movie’s already legion gay fans (most of whom haven’t even seen it yet).
All that is great. But when Gaga and Cooper are duetting, howling out the movie’s signature song “The Shallow,” Ally having been dragged on stage at first reluctantly, the movie explodes with vivid life. Cooper’s camera captures the enveloping rush as hearts open and lives change. These performance scenes are true magic, reveling in the shiver-inducing wonder of a religious revival and a coronation. They’re some of the most spirited stretches of film you’re likely to see this fall.
As inevitably happens in stories like these (and quite specifically, this story), a downward turn must be taken, hardship confronted and moved on from. In all that mounting gloom, A Star Is Born may be a bit haunted by the uplifting glory of what came before. But Cooper knows not to wallow too much, delivering the wallop most of us know is coming without a lot of dreary moping. It’s the wisdom of this finely made movie (what an auspicious debut for Cooper the director—and thank goodness Clint Eastwood didn’t make this, as once planned) that it knows its own graceful weight, that it calibrates itself with such balance.
I’m tempted to say that, yeah, sure, there is a little cheesiness to be found in the movie. Because that’s how we’re supposed to love movies like this, with caveats and qualifications that show we’re aware that it’s all a little silly. But you know what? I thought barely anything in A Star Is Born had an actual ring of hokiness or schmaltz. What I think is so often mistaken for that stuff is big, sincere, high-drama feeling, which the film has in abundance. I love the rhythm and rumble of this old story told well, so richly scored with song. So many different stars are born—or at least reimagined—in A Star Is Born that you leave with the lingering glow of a constellation still dazzling in your eyes. If that’s a corny thing to say, so be it. I’m far too swept away by this lovely and satisfying movie to care.