Toronto Film Festival 2018: ‘A Star Is Born’ Is Damn Near Perfect
You can probably think of a few cover versions of songs off the top of your head that you like as much as, or maybe more, than the originals: There are the obvious ones, and the obscure ones, and the velvet-roped V.I.P. section reserved for “Hallelujah” and Dylan’s body of work. The same goes for movies remakes, though it feels more appropriate to refer to actor-director Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born as a cover more than cinematic redo; the showbiz warhorse is one of the closest things Hollywood has to something out of the American Standard Songbook, and it’s way too intimate and personal to think of it as another third-verse-same-as-the-first retread. (Or in this case, fourth verse — fifth if you count What Price Hollywood?, an ASIB rose by any other name that predates the 1937 Star Is Born by five years.) “There’s only 12 notes, and the octave repeats,” says one character, late into the rise-and-fall arc. “All an artist can do is offer the world how he sees those 12 notes.” What Cooper does is offer the world his melody in just the right minor key and a refrain that knows where to hold back, when to go full anthemic blast and how to sell a song you’ve heard a thousand times before as his own. He succeeds, better than even he might have imagined. Whether you think it’s the definitive Star Is Born is a matter of personal opinion. If you were sitting in the movie’s first screening at the Toronto Film Festival, Cooper and his costar sure as hell made you feel like it’s the pitch-perfect one for right now.
And, at least for its glorious first hour, the movie gifts you with some of the best American filmmaking you’re likely to see before this year ends in sprints to the shiny-statuette finish line. [SPOILERS, if one can truly say that this old chestnut has plot elements left to spoil.] We meet the “fall” half of the equation, Jackson Maine, as he’s ambling on to a stage, playing raucous country-rock for a sold-out crowd. (Cooper pitches him as a creature with the borrowed DNA of modern gutbucket rockers like J. Roddy Walston, singer-songwriters like A.A. Bondy, twang mavericks like Sturgill Simpson and Eric Church, and a half dozen other handsome power-chord pickers.) The denim-jacket Bard likes his blues-guitar solos, with the camera crashing into him as he rips through stadium stompers and turning to offer stage-eye views of a sea of fans. He also likes his booze — pills are a-OK, too — and you practically smell the expensive Bombay Sapphire emanating off of the man. Back in the limo, he can’t find a bottle. He does spot a bar, however, which turns out to be in the middle of its weekly drag night. Maine sits down on a stool, slurrily chatting up a giddy young man named Ramon (Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos). Wigs and batting lashes pass by. And then he sees and hears her.
She is Ally, our “rise” heroine — and she is also Stefani Germanotta, credited by her nom du stage Lady Gaga, doing the sort of tightrope act here where you simultaneously see the person behind “Poker Face” and nothing but a character wearing a beautifully plain one. The voice comes early, courtesy of an ethereal shot of her silhouette belting out a show tune as she walks out of a garage, the title credit slowly appearing beneath her. By the time Ally belts out Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” prone on the bar before her future prince — she gets a swoonworthy sideways close-up, viewers seeing her exactly as Jackson does — your suspension of disbelief is already starting to kick in. This is a fairy tale, one that sweeps you up in its romantic (capital and lowercase R) wake. It’s impossible to think of another recent movie that can turn a late-night jaunt through a fluorescent supermarket into a trip to Shangri-La, or make some impromptu parking-lot belting feel like a party-of-two showstopper, or convince you someone’s Roman nose is Public Erogenous Zone No. 1.
Everything from the way Jackson caresses Ally’s boot as she rides on the back of his motorcycle to the way she gets him to open up about a past filled with “nuts, Navajo and nowhere to go” is weaving a spell, building to some moment of maximum goosebumpery. Finally, we get it: She gets pulled onstage to sing the rough tune she crooned for him the night before — he’s mysteriously fleshed it out and arranged it practically overnight, but hey, too late, Cooper already has you in the palm of his hand — and a you-know-what is born. Performance montages show that the two are forming a bond on and offstage: She’s part of the band, he’s part of her life. A slimy kingmaker (Ravi Gavron) promises to make her a pop queen. Meanwhile, Jackson is starting to self-destruct. Keen eyes may have noticed a prominent billboard filling the frame in the first 10 minutes; consider this a sign in more ways than one. You know what comes next. The song remains the same.
If the film’s back half starts to falter a bit, it’s partially by bug-not-feature design — a colleague pointed out that every iteration of this story seems to suffer from weak second acts — and partially thanks to a headscratching choice. So Ally makes her name singing punchy rock tunes and power ballads, but when it comes time for her solo jump, everyone envisions her as … a Beyoncé-style pop chanteuse? It’s not like they needed some sort of workaround for Gaga’s “limitations”; she’s done everything from Tony Bennett duets to belt out operatic Sound of Music tributes. Ally 2.0, she of the newly dyed red hair and massive Sunset Strip billboard, doesn’t feel like an organic transformation even if you take into account the legendarily limited imagination of the music industry. It doesn’t track, anymore than the instant ascension to Grammys and SNL appearances level of celebrity does. Yes, we need to get to the plummet, the ugliness, the onstage humiliation (here rendered particularly nasty and unforgiving), the martyrdom and the moment of grace. Still, why “sellout” pop fame, and not just fame vs. flame-out? The spell doesn’t break, but the illusion does waver a bit on the edges.
Which may seem nitpicky when you have pleasures like Cooper affecting a 30-grit soulsick rasp that allows for him and screen sibling Sam Elliott to have a good ol’-fashioned masculine croak-off. (“Why’d ya steal my voice?” Elliott bellows, saying what we’ve all been deliriously thinking for the past hour.) And the hits keep on coming: Dave Chappelle dropping by for an extended cameo and Andrew Dice Clay talking shit about Sinatra. The cinematography from Matthew Libatique, who does wonders with grain and natural light and a way of getting the camera to capture these folks in their ragged glory. The songs, like the Jason Isbell-penned “Maybe It’s Time” or the soon-to-be-juggernaut that is Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.” And best of all, both Cooper and Gaga proving skeptics wrong on such a massive level: We knew he was a proper movie star, but who knew he might be a potential auteur-in-the-making, someone who could filter his vision via an older-than-Vishnu narrative? We knew she was a star, but who knew she was not just an actor but such a first-rate one?
Or, for that matter, to have the film mount a climactic pomp-and-circumstance set piece that feels so achingly wrong, only to switch gears at the last moment, drop in a sublime final shot and then you leave you on such a high note. There may be better movies that play at TIFF before things wind down to a close, but there almost assuredly won’t be better landings stuck from such perilous heights. It feels odd to find such freshness circa 2018, especially in such a creaky carcass of a tale. It feels unlike anything else out there right now in terms of this level of studio moviemaking. It feels alive.