If you are a human being who worries that you are dead inside, that you may have no emotions left to give, that your soul has been crushed so many times that there’s no way a single tear could be shed in the name of cinema – yet, you’re not exactly sure and you need one final test – then Bradley Cooper’s iteration of A Star is Born (which screened on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival) is your last litmus test. If you do not cry during this movie, then, yes, you might be dead inside.
Bradley Cooper has had one of the more interesting trajectories in recent film history. It was only 10 years ago Cooper was playing “fun drinking buddy” in a movie like the forgettable Jim Carrey vehicle, Yes Man. (Before I go on, it’s also of note that Ant-Man and the Wasp director Peyton Reed directed Yes Man, so Yes Man alumni apparently have a lot of success stories.) Before that he was Sack in Wedding Crashers. And then he became famous in The Hangover. Now, out of the blue, Bradley Cooper has directed a movie that is best summed up as “phenomenal” (which is why I used that word in the headline). Seriously: utterly phenomenal. Look, “hype” sucks. I had heard so much hype before I saw A Star is Born, there was part of me looking for anyway to find something in this movie that went against the hype. No, I’m sorry, the hype is warranted.
Cooper is a first-time director, but he’s been around the block enough to know to hire a pro as his cinematographer. And he hired Matthew Libatique, who has directed most of Darren Aronofsky’s films. You don’t’ need to know a lot about Libatique, but know Cooper was smart enough to hire the person who shot Black Swan. Regardless, the result is absolutely gorgeous. Of all things you’d think A Star is Born would be, “one of the best looking films of the year” isn’t something I would have guessed.
(This is the part where I acknowledge there have been, count ‘em, now four versions of this movie. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because I just assume you know this, but in case you didn’t, well now you do.)
Cooper plays Jackson Maine (I wish my name were Jackson Maine), a famous singer in the vein of something like Zac Brown. A lot will be said about Cooper’s performance – spoiler: most of it will be, “it’s good!” – but the first thing I noticed is that he really gets the body language of a rock star. He gets the motions a rock star makes when playing a certain riff. It’s a subtle shoulder motion when playing a certain note. It’s the way the body moves when playing that final guitar strum at the end of a hit song. I’ve been to enough Springsteen shows to notice this. This is what makes Bruce great at the live show. It’s not just “energy,” it’s being able to move your body in tune with the music that you’re playing. Cooper does this perfectly.
After a show, Jackson Maine wanders into a, as he calls it, “drag bar,” and watches Ally (Lady Gaga) perform. Jackson is smitten and the two have a drunken night together that includes Ally punching a cop. Jackson invites Ally to his next show in an effort to get her to sing one of her original songs in front of a huge audience. She’s a hit. Immediately things take off for her professionally, as she and Jackson grow closer and closer.
Jackson is a mess. He’s an obvious alcoholic and it’s never “cute.” We kind of always know where this is headed, but what makes it so damn hard to watch is the fact that Cooper’s Jackson is extremely sympathetic. We know he loves Ally. We know he’d do anything for Ally. Jackson has a disease he can’t kick and we watch him spiral out of control, and in the end, it’s his love for Ally that becomes his tragedy.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Elliott, who plays Jackson’s older brother and manager, Bobby. These two brothers love each other so much, yet there’s so much pain between them. Bobby hated their late father. Jackson loved him. The last scene these two have on screen is a master class on “how to do a scene like that.” (Earlier this year I found out I have an older brother I never knew about. He hates my late father. I loved my dad. But I’d do anything to have a relationship like Bobby and Jackson do. Maybe someday. The last time we see Bobby in this movie will haunt me for a long time.)
What Bradley Cooper has done here as an actor and director is truly remarkable. Thinking back, I remember when this was first announced and it was like, “Um, okay, sure.” I suspect he knew there would be that kind of reaction. But, surprisingly, we get one of the best films of the year out of it. Andrew Dice Clay is even in this movie! He plays Ally’s father, and even he gives an outstanding performance.
A Star is Born is not just the movie you hoped it would be from the dynamic trailer, it’s much better. It’s an expertly shot, phenomenal film that now puts Bradley Cooper on the “elite director” list. Not too shabby for the third lead from Yes Man.
‘A Star Is Born’ opens on October 5th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.