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Review: A Star is Born

October 3, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

“I’m falling, in all the good times I find myself longing for change, and in the bad times, I fear myself…”

This is the pre-chorus refrain of “Shallow,” the soaring ballad at the centre of A Star is Born that serves as an incredible showcase for the combined voices of co-stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and hasn’t left my head since I saw the film at TIFF a few weeks ago.

The song has already become a phenomenon about the size of “Let It Go” after the music video was put out last week and instantly went viral. It’s hard to imagine anything stopping it from winning the Oscar for Best Original Song at this point, even if a song of this magnitude admittedly runs the risk of being overplayed.

But the real reason why the song keeps running through my head is not because of its unavoidable place on social media, where people are already quoting the lyrics, but because of the deeper meaning that these very lyrics take on after seeing the film. Not only is “Shallow” an integral part of A Star is Born in terms of how it is used within the narrative, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of all the soaring highs and crushing lows that define the journey these characters are taken on. The song is able to represent both the sweeping romanticism and devastating emotional vulnerability of the story in the form of a stunning, radio-friendly single.

The film serves as the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who is also undertaking the arduous task of crafting the third remake of A Star is Born following the 1937 original, which received new iterations in 1954 and 1976, and the results are pretty great. This might be a somewhat familiar story, and the film can be a bit predictable at times, but this is hardly a problem. It’s a familiar tale that is extremely well told, and Cooper finds much room to make it feel fresh, delivering a sweeping romantic drama that is both sublimely entertaining and absolutely heartbreaking.

This time around, the story involves Jackson Maine (Cooper), a washed up country superstar who is still able to sell out massive stadiums, but also has a drinking problem that stems from decades of pain in his life. But his career takes an unexpected turn when he meets a young singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag bar that he stumbles into after a show, looking for a place to get loaded. They spend the night together just hanging out, and Jackson discovers that Ally is also a songwriter who had aspirations to make it big, before having her dreams dashed by record producers who told her that she had the right voice but not the right looks to become a pop star.

Jackson invites Ally on tour with him, and convinces her to come on stage with him when he starts to play an arrangement of one of her own compositions. She is nervous at first, but steps into the spotlight and stuns the crowd with her powerhouse voice. And this is how “Shallow” is born. Over one of the film’s most magical scenes, we watch as a tentative, exciting and powerful duet unfolds between these two lost people who found each other by chance and are now baring their hearts and souls to each other through the music, leaving it all on the stage. It’s the true “a star is born” moment of A Star is Born, and one of the defining scenes in the film.

Footage of their performance goes viral overnight, and Jackson uses the success to help turn Ally into a pop star in her own right, with her becoming a fan-favourite part of his ongoing stadium tour. But as Jackson succumbs to alcoholism and finds his career fading, just as Ally’s career starts to really take off and she is pushed to go solo and embrace a more generic pop sound, an increasing distance starts to form between them.

One of the biggest draws here is obviously the music, and the multiple musical numbers in the film are phenomenal, offering an entire album’s worth of new songs that chart the character progression of the film, from the stripped down ballads that Jackson and Ally initially perform together, to the more standard pop songs as she starts to go solo. Jackson’s big hit is a haunting country tune called “Maybe It’s Time,” which couldn’t be more different from the poppy dance tracks that Ally comes to be known for, where as “Shallow” functions as a perfect melding of their two styles.

While the film is not technically a musical, these songs do carry the film and help tell the story, and many of them are memorable enough to stand on their own. It’s also worth noting that Cooper wanted real musicians to perform alongside him in the film, and the members of Jackson’s band are fittingly portrayed by Promise of the Real, Lukas Nelson’s country rock outfit that has backed up Neil Young in recent years. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does an exceptional job of shooting the film, giving a thrilling live music feel to the concert scenes, and intimately capturing the quiet dramatic moments.

The film is also carried by great performances from its leads. Cooper really impresses in the role of a grizzled, alcoholic country singer, revealing himself to have a strong singing voice along with his ability to devastate us with a look in his soulful blue eyes. It ranks alongside his career-changing role in Silver Linings Playbook as his best work yet, and Lady Gaga proves herself to be the real deal as an actress in her first leading role. She’s a star in more ways than one, delivering a quietly revelatory performance as she powerfully navigates both the musical performances and big dramatic moments with equal aplomb.

The two of them share an incredible and at times intense chemistry together, and they are further aided by memorable performances from a trio of familiar faces in the supporting cast. Sam Elliott brings his usual grizzled, soulful style to his role as Jackson’s older brother and stage manager; Dave Chappelle shines in a welcome dramatic role as a neighbour who finds Jackson in a vulnerable moment and helps him get back up; and Andrew Dice Clay does fine work as Ally’s father, a proud Italian man who works as a chauffeur and wants his daughter to carry out his own dream of becoming a singer, which he often boasts about but never got to pursue.

The last twenty minutes of the film are extremely well directed, with one haunting scene in particular showing that Cooper’s strengths as a visual storyteller absolutely match his skills as an actor. This is not only an accomplished and moving directorial debut for one of our finest actors, proving his ability to craft a story that is both extremely enjoyable and emotionally gutting, but also resounding proof that one of the biggest modern pop stars now has the spotlight as an actress.

“I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground,” Ally sings in the chorus of that aforementioned song, “crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us, we’re far from the shallow now.” We are far from the shallow now, and a star has been born, indeed.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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