From Once’s lo-fi alchemy to the sugary synth-pop of Music and Lyrics, we’ve seen plenty of films that celebrate the serendipitously spontaneous side of songwriting — inspirational instances when lyrics magically fall into place, harmonies lock together and songs emerge.
Time similarly grinds to a halt to imprint musical memory and meaning during certain moments in A Star is Born — the fourth cinematic version of the story and the first in more than 40 years. (It transplants the 1976 Kris Kristofferson-Barbra Streisand version’s music-industry setting while leaving behind its cheesier excesses.) Of those moments, none is more effective than when Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a winsome but wasting-away country-rock legend, and Ally (Lady Gaga) a waitress-cum-powerhouse vocalist who becomes his protégé, paramour and protector, belt out “Shallow” together onstage for the first time.
When a chance encounter turns into a magical all-nighter that spans a drag-club stage to a grocery store’s parking lot, Ally sings Jackson a fragment of “Shallow,” an original song with which she’s been fiddling. She claims she’s best at the performative aspects of others’ songs. He tells her he’s afraid she might be a songwriter. Unbeknownst to Ally, Jackson has penned his own responsive verse to “Shallow” — which she learns only when she’s whisked from her job and rushed onstage to perform. Jackson’s voice starts the song, but it closes the circle for her.
Channeling sincere appreciation for her own fame and fans, Gaga uses facial gestures as mesmerizing — and dynamic — as her voice in the scene. We see the light click on for a woman accustomed to the dark. Cooper acquits himself well on the vocals-and-guitar side of things and also flashes a smile that cranks his own wattage in a way bound to make the bulb pop. Arriving near the end of a first hour that feels like mere minutes, “Shallow” is the songwriting apotheosis of Star — guaranteed to stiffen hairs on all but the most cynical neck.
Speaking of necks: There is no end of sumptuous, emotionally interrogative close-ups of neck napes, earlobes and cheekbones from cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Star conjures up a near-cosmic contemplation of creativity, connection and charged chemistry between its stars. It’s not the only element of Star that embraces classic Hollywood filmmaking. The title card fills the screen. There are plenty of colorful, kaleidoscopic nods to the previous versions. Plus, this is a romance, after all, and a damn convincing one.
But as re-conceived by Cooper — in a downright stunning debut as a co-writer and director — this Star doesn’t settle for a patina of prestige or timeworn theses about talents on inverse trajectories.
In this unexpectedly existential treatise on the ephemera of fame and attention, it’s hardly an accident that the hook for “Shallow” speaks to the serenity of — and possible preference for — drowning far away from the din. Working alongside writers Will Fetters and Eric Roth, Cooper understands how fleeting the high of creative satisfaction, how crippling the addiction, how destructive the dragon. That a retreat within yourself to find your voice can be irreversible, a path without breadcrumbs. How Cooper and company coalesce that into a thorny humanity powers Star through a more narratively predictable, slightly more laborious second hour.
Cooper eschews comforting visuals of romantic spectacle for crisis and spiral. For the first time in this story, the male character plays less like a kingmaker soured than a kind soul spinning out of control. Drowning out his worsening tinnitus with booze and pills, Jackson can play through any show like a pro; a Roy Orbison tribute in which his participation is gradually diminished stands out in this regard. But the comedowns are swift, the silences annihilative. Libatique’s camera might make you swoon, but it also shoves you into Jackson’s ringing, exhausting headspace — that bass drum backbeat like a telltale heart — and he shoots Jackson’s performances with lighting that resembles a consumptive fire and the panicked, quickened pace of a limbic system about to fry.
As a director, Cooper seems attuned to unfussy, but indispensable, details on the edges of the frame — few more notable in the final act than a fire alarm or a scar on one character’s brow. As an actor, he’s never been better — waiting for the right moments in which to let Jackson’s darkness and detachment crash through the surface with force and sorrow.
Similarly, we understand Ally’s countenance as a woman whose deliverance of grace and generosity under forced smiles has become a default at the expense of her own happiness. We also believe her reluctance to run off at the slightest hint of interest from a famous musician. She has sprinted, and stumbled, many times before alongside her father, a similarly troubled man whom she loves. More than simply mining or miming her own experience under a fictitious name, Gaga paints a vivid picture of a woman finding her voice — relishing, and resenting, her own chance to wield words as weapons as they have often been used against her.
Andrew Dice Clay plays Ally’s father, and the boorish comedian turned cautious character actor is among several people who have, in different ways, withered under the heat of a real-life spotlight and who play tertiary characters here. Eddie Griffin and Dave Chappelle, the latter in a scene that feels like he’s almost addressing his own insecurities, show up as well. So much of A Star is Born feels like everyone involved boldly laying their cards on the table to prove themselves in some way, and that seeps into the story.
The same holds true for Sam Elliott, who could easily coast on old-pro reliability as Bobby, Jackson’s much older brother-turned-manager, but instead offers an electric jolt of vulnerability whenever he turns up. He has maybe five scenes, but you’ll never forget any of them — whether it’s standoffs with Jackson that obscure the bond they share or, in the coda, a jaw-dropping summation of the film’s ideas in which this rugged piece of oak breaks your heart.
There are no archetypes or shortcuts here; even the scurrilous pop producer who sways Ally in a new musical direction is not entirely an asshole. For that reason, we come away caring for these people … and the songs to which they’ve given birth in a spark.
Songs age, too, into eulogies for euphoria or suicide notes for security. They die. They’re reborn. Over and over, in a cycle in which they’re imbued with individual meaning — all things to all people. That’s not something this genre asks us to think about all that often, but which we realize are indispensable truths about music. It’s a sense of boldness, decay and renewal that rests deep in the bones, performances, and storytelling of one of the year’s finest films so far.