There’s a moment in A Star Is Born when they talk about the chromatic scale, where the twelve notes of Western music are used over and over (and over) again to craft songs. There’s repetition, themes and variations, all delineated less by musical or harmonic novelty than by finding away using these simple tools to express oneself, to present some humanity that can inextricably tied to the song being written or the performance being conducted.
A film remade a half dozen times already, it’s easy to dismiss Bradley Cooper’s telling as mere imitation. Yet like those twelve notes he manages to make the work very much his own, thanks to a committed performance as an aging, broken singer confronting a young woman who fires his creative imagination. The story may be predictable, but it remains very much three chords and the truth.
This iteration is made even more remarkable thanks to the inclusion of Lady Gaga. Her insistence that vocal performances were captured on set results in a deep intimacy, where there’s less distance between the musical moments and the dialogue. Each is part of a whole, a true integration between song and idea that makes the dynamic between the two even more powerful.
Additionally, the story of a meek songwriter finding herself buried under layers of production to fuel the pop machine is entirely resonant with what Gaga’s own career has undergone. We see the stripped down version of her and find it just as captivating as her avant garde theatrics, embracing the unadorned for both its purity and intimacy.
There’s a bittersweet notion at play with the success that Gaga’s character inexorably gains – This is, after all, about a star being born, where notions of artistic integrity can be subsumed in order to gain popularity. This too echoes the journey of a cabaret singer and pianist named Stefani Germanotta who transformed herself into a highly theatrical performer, with the bombast occasionally masking the purity of her talent.
Yet none of these metatextual elements would add up to more than stunt casting were it not for the real chemistry and vulnerability shared between Cooper and Gaga. Sam Elliott gives a strong performance as the long suffering brother, while Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle work completely against type, each bringing a welcome sense of pathos and charisma to their supporting roles.
The music, much of it co-composed by Gaga, is perfectly in keeping with both contemporary pop and the kind of grizzled Americana Cooper’s character would be celebrated for. Thanks to an extraordinary sound mix that employs Dolby Atmos there’s a “you are here” nature, the concert sound impeccably realized and a perfect match to the swirling camera work.
This has long been a passion project for Cooper, and it’s easy to see how it could be little more than an actor getting over his head. Instead, we have a rich, sympathetic film that’s got a terrific ensemble, resulting in a work that’s surely predicable but remains immensely impactful.
Great music, great performances, a doomed love story with plenty of heart on display, A Star Is Born really is a triumph, a reminder that sometimes playing the hits can really bring the house down.