During the denouement of “A Star Is Born,” Sam Elliot — in his wizened, gravelly baritone — summarizes music as “12 notes between any octave. 12 notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
The three Hollywood predecessors of “A Star is Born” have already mined its iconic ballad of love, fame and self-destruction well enough. What distinguishes director and star Bradley Cooper’s new rendition is his desire to tease out and explore the volcanic, passionate and fatal link between the characters who form the epicenter of these pre-existing 12 notes.
The result is a stirring musical epic defined by the raw and brutal emotional honesty it strings together.
“A Star Is Born” starts off with Cupid’s arrow instantly striking popular musician and occasionally pill-popping alcoholic Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) when he discovers the down-on-her-luck singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) performing at a drag bar.
A mutual admiration and attraction for each other’s artistic talent quickly blooms between the two, and soon, Jackson is encouraging Ally to grab the musical spotlight she deserves. As Ally garners immediate fame and recognition, however, Jackson’s personal demons start crawling out of the woodwork and threaten to jeopardize their relationship.
At the forefront of the film, it’s Cooper and Lady Gaga who make the foreshadowed tragedy and downfall that follow well worth watching. Lady Gaga, notably, has been earning consistent praise for her first starring role in a feature, and rightly so. She pours every inch of herself into the cautious but expressive Ally and utilizes her effervescent eyes to convey the relentless drive and sparkling determination at the heart of her character. She shines not only in the scenes that require her to “perform” onstage, but also in the soulful, dramatic, and silky-smooth chemistry she builds with Cooper’s character.
As Jackson, Cooper delivers his strongest performance to date. Many artists fall into the trap of overplaying the archetypal substance-abusing protagonist with a sordid past, but Cooper imbues his acting with a teddy-bear gentleness to counterbalance his portrayal of Jackson’s anguish. By emphasizing the amiable adult struggling to break the shell of the tortured child, Cooper is able to give Jackson an anchor point — a reason for audiences to care about his relationship with Ally.
Indeed, the first act of the film is so impactful because it hinges on portraying why these characters are intertwined with one another. More than pure eroticism, their romance is fueled by a shared artistic need, a shared desire to say something and “a way to say it.”
Framing their attachment in the context of this common passion allows Cooper to direct concert duets peppered throughout the film with a zeal of manic, crackling electricity. “Shallow,” in particular, is magnificently choreographed, with the intermittent flashes of dazzling light perfectly illuminating the comfort, ecstasy and satisfaction on the characters’ faces as they croon and belt out the deliciously addictive lyrics.
Unfortunately, “Shallow” also marks the apex of the emotional heights reached by “A Star Is Born.” The rest of the film becomes a conventional, albeit powerfully acted, tale of neglect, envy and eventual calamity.
The film does put a new spin on Jackson’s disregard for Ally’s success — he worries that her beautiful art will be commercialized into something impure, “ugly.” It soon abandons these critiques of the music industry, however, for a prolonged section exploring the telegraphed fissures that creep up in Ally and Jackson’s relationship.
Even though the film loses some of its visceral, head-thumping momentum near the end, it is hard to not be invested in Jackson and Ally’s journey, no matter how familiar that journey may be.
Ultimately, for “A Star is Born,” the 12 notes of this story are still the same, but the way the film sees them is bound to leave nary an eye dry.
“A Star Is Born” is playing at UA Berkeley 7.