In Bradley Cooper's directorial debut A Star Is Born (2018) it's insisted that it's not just what an artist says but how they say it that counts, and that's a rather convenient allegory in a film that serves as the third retelling of its story. Indeed, from the classic 1937 movie to the golden-era musical of 1954 and the Barbara Streisand-fronted blockbuster of 1967, there have been numerous different compositions of this tale over the years, so you might be forgiven for thinking that working with such a familiar set of notes would make it difficult for Cooper to find his own voice.
In fact though - much like in the previous incarnations - it's in large part down to the very timelessness of the story itself that his film is such a success, as this premise has the ability to unlock some universal and rather tragic commentary on jealousy and the limits of love against what may be good for the individuals involved. This version in particular follows rock star Jackson Main (Bradley Cooper) struggling with fame, drug addiction and a career on the decline - who coincidentally runs into Ally (played here by none other than Lady Gaga) dreaming of stardom, and as the two quickly fall in love and Main gets Ally the big break she's been hoping for, things begins to spiral out of control.
What Cooper's version brings to the table more than ever though - and this is of course where he really has to face the music - is the sense that every opportunity and every good thing in the movie is a real poisoned chalice. On the one hand that’s about the music industry and how Ally's success isn't really hers but a cheapened, sexualised and controlled version of that, and it also extends to the negativity of the central relationship due to Main's addiction and the jealousy he begins to feel towards his newfound lover. In other words then, there’s very little black and white at all.
The film begins with one of Jackson Main's gigs; a brilliantly constructed, blindingly-lit sequence that not only completely sells you on the fact that he's a rock star, but also shows his obvious intoxication in just a few shots before the camera begins to cling to him and bring a bewildering and claustrophobic feeling of fragility as he starts to play. We then see him stumble into the sudden quiet of his chauffeur-driven car and make his way to a small-town bar in search of drink, and here he's coincidentally introduced to Ally - Lady Gaga belting out a wonderfully pure rendition of La Vie en Rose.
What this is of course is a properly masterful introduction to two complicated characters, but it's also Cooper assuring us that he knows what he's doing, and quite frankly it's safe to say that he shows quite an assured directorial hand throughout. The sequence that follows in which Main accompanies Ally to a supermarket is then only further proof of this obvious talent as the chemistry between him and Gaga is charming and magnetic and given real time to breathe, and by the time he manages to make one shot of a packet of frozen peas look cinematic, it's frankly confirmation that we no longer needed.
And effectively, after this brilliant start, the whole first half of the film continues in a rather similar vein as lots of time and care is taken to beautifully develop the love and chemistry between the two as well as Main's growing jealousy and Ally's precarious dependency - often through the medium of brilliantly-executed musical numbers which are also partly written by Cooper himself - as things inevitably build to a point at which the toxicity of their relationship is acknowledged.
There is actually a time during the film however where you wonder whether they will recognize and explore this at all (one moment in particular may have you really questioning Ally's obliviousness to the poison that their coupling brings her), but rest assured that Cooper does eventually venture into those previous incarnations' territories, and that when he does he doesn't hold back either.
Indeed, the investment that he's built for the couple makes the jealousy and the fractures that Main's addictions bring all the more affecting and upsetting, and as a result their inevitable demise is hugely tragic to watch in a kind of Romeo and Juliet manner where the two can't be together despite their intense love for each other. Equally though, it's also safe to say that none of that would have been as effective as it is without such magnetic central performances, as Cooper delivers an easy career-best, and Gaga knocks it out of the park as a surprising tour de force in both the acting and the vocal departments.
If there was one criticism to be leveled at the film it would be that Cooper appears to be more fascinated with the romance than he is with the tragedy, as the complex demise of the relationship and the poisoning of Ally's success is executed far more quickly than its development is, which does make the final act a little less affecting than it could have been. However, in the same breath, it could be argued that that's partly what makes the themes translate so well as without the intense romance and investment in their characters, it wouldn't be so upsetting that everything good in their lives seems to be tainted as the film progresses.
In the end then, this latest A Star Is Born (2018), is a deeply complicated and tragic watch in which Cooper takes this classic premise and plays with the mid-tones so that nothing that appears to be good is good, and nothing that you might think would be evil is evil. That's a brave thing for any director to do, and even if the execution of the latter half of this film is a little less effective than the first, you can always rest assured that it's never over until the fat lady sings - a phrase that almost literally applies here.
Overall though, it's just a brilliant debut piece that certainly won't serve as a one-hit wonder, and will equally be far from a swan-song for Cooper behind the camera, or Gaga in front of it. People are already harping on about awards, and whilst we'll probably have to play it by ear in that department, it might be time for Cooper to get some speeches ready. He really did pull out all the stops here, and it's genuinely music to the ears.
Final Score: 8 out of 10
A Star Is Born • Run time 2:16 • Rated R - for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse