“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is referencing the inner struggles of an aging musician battling alcoholism and drug addiction, but he could have been talking about bad Hollywood remakes.
With his directorial debut, Cooper didn’t take a half-measure; the multiple-Oscar nominee took a full cut at the filmmaker plate, dishing his take on one of the most classic stories in Hollywood. In the fourth rendition of the film, Cooper made it feel brand new and as powerful as ever.
One can say no to remakes all they want, but with Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born, you may be asking for others to simply follow his playbook. It’s simple really: Make it fresh and unlike any other iteration of the tale.
Casting a once in a lifetime talent should also be at the top of that to-do list. Lady Gaga is a transcendent talent and shows it off here, and that’s not just because she can sing every female artist out of the room on any given night. The woman can do it all, rather that is holding her own with the likes of Cooper and Sam Elliott (blowing his resume away with his work here) or going through the gauntlet of emotions inside one scene. She is a movie star, outstanding actress, and musician all wrapped up in one lethal package of ruthless confidence. When Jackson spots her singing a French classic at a drag bar and becomes infatuated with her, the audience follows suit. It’s addicting, like the rest of the movie.
I watched 115 movies this year, and none of them were as good as this flick.
There are many reasons why A Star Is Born is the best movie I saw in 2018, and trust me, I’ve done my homework here, watching it four times. Movies require research and constant attention. For film critics, one viewing simply isn’t enough most of the time. You must dig deep in order to find out what’s inside of a movie. When I sat down this week and thought about which film hit the hardest this year, it wasn’t even close. There are other great films, but none of them have the impact of Cooper’s film. Let’s go over a few reasons.
First, the film makes you feel so many emotions as you watch it, and after you leave it. Take the first scene of the film, where Maine waltzes onto the stage and transforms from a drunken pill-popper into a full-fledged rock star able to astound the masses with his voice and guitar work. A tortured soul taking refuge in the endless folklore of music and an adoring crowd. Afterwards, he jumps into a car like a snake running away from the cold, sucking back a bottle of gin and seeking more as the last drop settles into his liver. Right away, we feel close to Jack because we have witnessed what he does through and how he helps while also knowing an end is somewhere in sight unless he finds a safe harbor.
When he meets Gaga’s Ally, his life changes, and a whirlwind romance develops that encompasses the two singers and everyone around them. When Jackson takes Ally to a grocery store to fix her bruised hand, she sings for him in the parking lot, and it doesn’t feel forced. It’s what these people do to maintain sanity. They sing and connect. 95% of movies have to make a real effort to connect emotionally with the audience; A Star Is Born never felt that way to me. It just happened and made an impact with simplistic scene setups.
Second, the music is amazingly produced, familiar yet carrying something original inside of its genesis. A mix of country, rock, and alternative ballads that sounds like something Tim McGraw, Ryan Bingham, and Gaga would produce if they were stuck in a room for a week. Cooper gathered a hit list of musical creators in Gaga, Jason Isbell, Lukas Nelson (who doubles as Jackson’s bandmate in the film), and Mark Ronson to assemble the songs, and the actors make each and every one of them come alive. When Ally joins Jackson on stage for “The Shallow,” the camera is set up behind the actors and pops in front of them throughout the song, capturing the expressive faces without manipulating the audience into loving these people. You are attracted to them, just like Ally is to Jack’s tortured wilderness.
It is Jack’s old ways that attempt to corrupt Ally while influencing her, a weird concoction of mentoring that carries a double-edged sword. He’s this lone riding cowboy who shot to stardom during a time where the music business was different, saddling his music with real life desolation in the lyrics. With most songwriters, an embellishment supplies the drama in their songs. That’s not the case with Maine, who lived and died many times in his lonesome dove soliloquies.
Third, there’s an honest push and pull flavor to Ally and Jack that keeps their relationship unpredictable and always on the edge of despair. From the moment she shares a space with him, she can see the whole picture that’s maddening yet too sexy to quit. He drinks too much, but he’s also a charismatic and caring soul who adores her every being, so it’s not easy to stay away from. He sees a momentary refuge from the dull and robotic nature of his life; a wild, beautiful mixer to pour into his drink to keep him alive. The two represent salvation for each other amid the turbulence of true love.
You can see it in Gaga’s eyes throughout the film. Pay attention to the way Ally looks at Jackson. It’s like a person daring to get closer to a tornado that she knows will soon wreck her, but sometimes it’s impossible to simply go back to the car and drive away to a safer environment once you’ve tasted what the storm has to offer.
The troubles in paradise here aren’t played off as a gimmick. Cooper leans into the heartbreak of this tale with full intention to rock you and destroy you all at once. As Ally’s career skyrockets and his path stalls out, the emotional beats of the story become louder and more powerful. The live shows die down to solo acts and the disbelief in Jack’s face grows larger as he sees a new manager (Rafi Gavron, bringing much-needed truth to an unlikable role) pour the modern career path over Ally’s trek, drowning the substance in overloads of style and marketable pop music. We are with Jack as this unfolds, seeing the wondrous talent of his singer-songwriter girlfriend lose her way in order to find footing and longevity in the business.
This is where Cooper truly amazed me. He could have driven that familiar road of heartbreak like the previous versions of the film did, and been fine. He could have walked a straight line to the end, but he chose to stop and really inspect what made Jack and Ally tick…and what made them vulnerable. He did this while showing the true effects of substance abuse and mental disease on not only the person afflicted, but the many people around him. Cooper didn’t flinch once during the darker moments of the movie; he craved the darkness. If he didn’t, the rest of the movie falls apart or carries less weight. Keep track of the many times the film goes quiet and lets a scene sink in.
For a first time director to pull this off is incredibly rare. You take on a story that debuted nearly 70 years ago, make a bold choice in casting the co-lead, put yourself in the other spot, and compose and capture all the music while delivering on the intricate details of a love story. Everything here is authentic and meticulously produced, down to the costumes and set design. Try and find that elsewhere in a film.
Fourth, you could make a legit claim that every actor gave the best performance of their careers. Cooper blew me away before (Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper), but his Jackson Maine is something else. He lowered his voice, learned how to sing and play guitar, and fully embodied the character’s depressed weight. You could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, and how he moved. There’s even a quiet moment before an awards show where Jack is just sitting on the couch that resonates. Cooper found a way to be tremendous all over again here.
Gaga matches him beat for beat, shedding her real-life persona and rebuilding it with more breakable parts included. Ally isn’t just a woman spotted by a famous male musician who shoots to stardom; she’s got her own complications and demons, just ones that aren’t as pronounced as Jack’s issues. While she will get other roles, Gaga will never be as good as she was here.
Elliott has been searching for this character for years. Bobby Maine gives the galvanic-voiced thespian a true platform to take all his strengths and twist them just right into a performance that should resonate with any brother or sibling. Bobby harbored a lot of guilt in Jack’s upbringing, including the tumultuous relationship with their father that poisoned his little brother’s well at an early age. With small bits of dialogue, looks, and one killer monologue in the end, Elliott showed us the best of him.
Andrew Dice Clay added a soulful touch as Ally’s dad, Lorenzo, showing off the genius and bold casting choices of Cooper. Dave Chappelle only gets three scenes in the film, but kills it as Jack’s longtime friend who tries to steer him clear of the bottom of the drain. In one speech to his friend about finding salvation in a woman, Chappelle’s George melts our hearts. I could go on. Anthony Ramos as Ally’s friend. Barry Shabaka Henley as one of Lorenzo’s drivers. Greg Grunberg as Jack’s driver. Ron Rifkin in a small role. Everybody brought their A-game and elevated the movie.
Elliott has said in multiple interviews that everyone working on the film were in it to create something beautiful. He could feel it. Now, 99% of actors will say that when discussing a film, but for some reason, I believed Elliott. Everybody involved with A Star Is Born was convincing and committed to excellence; a group of people making a movie for a reason, like the film had to exist. That’s more rare than you think, and harder to spot.
Authentic is a word I use often with Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. In the dictionary, it’s something that comes from an undisputed origin. Genuine. For a remake to come off as genuine means something incredible must have happened. Forget amazing. This movie is incredible.
The day after Christmas, I turned the movie on one more time. I was tired, recovering from the consumption of alcohol and stress of cooking a holiday dinner, and wanted a relief. Instead of escaping into a timeless romantic comedy or classic action thriller, I wanted to walk down Jackson and Ally Lane once more. I knew what was coming…the sadness and anguish that awaited me. I wanted it anyway. I wanted to feel what Cooper made again. A rapturously-produced yet bluntly honest love story. That’s how good this movie is. Like its star and director, I learned to embrace the darkness of life.
In remaking a movie everybody seemed to know into something genuine, Cooper redefined what artistic integrity meant. He made the film his own, crafting a classic in the process. You can sit down and watch this film decades from now, and find new meaning and passion wrapped inside its running time.
Like Jackson sings early on in the film, maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. In other words, maybe it’s time to let the old ways of remaking movies die. The ones that have nothing to say. As Jack tells Ally about the life of a musician, make sure you have something to say, and don’t be afraid to say it as long you want. Well done, Mr. Cooper.
Great movies stick around for quite some time. The best films just never die. A Star Is Born will hit just as hard in 25, 50, and 100 years. It is the best film I’ve seen this year and in quite some time.