I knew he was good, but even from the trailer I could tell SHE was good too.
What I couldn’t tell was just HOW good they would be together. Writer/director/composer/star Bradley Cooper found his muse in singer/composer/performance artist Lady Gaga; their alchemy is what tethered me to this moving, though imperfect film, and that magic happens the second they appear together onscreen.
First, some context. This is Cooper’s directorial debut and Gaga’s first starring role in a feature film with a long and lustrous pedigree: Janet Gaynor and Frederic March co-starred in 1937; Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954; Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. Each film is a sign of its time, pitting a success-seeking female against an established, declining male star. Usually, she ends up paying a heftier price for fame in the form of guilt, blame, and pain no matter how tragic his end. (Streisand paid for it behind the scenes when a tell-all book by the film’s director cemented her reputation as the film’s ball-busting star and executive producer who had final cut. Ouch.)
In 2018, “Jackson Maine” (Bradley Cooper) and “Ally” (Lady Gaga) meet in the middle of this messy, romantic, socio-sexual dilemma as equals. The film means to honor the complexity of human relationships. They are partners in pain; both bear some responsibility, pay a steep price for their competing needs, desires, flaws, and choices, and neither is wholly to blame. His addiction is an illness, and she deserves to realize herself as an artist. He genuinely attempts healing via rehab; she hires a manager and heads out to be heard, pursuing her delayed dream of being a singer/songwriter with gusto and his blessing. Conflict, disaster and tears loom. But I bought it, again, with a few reservations.
Their first meeting in a drag club where he’s wandered in half in the bag and exhausted from yet another sold out show, is killer. There in a sea of prosthetic boobs, Ally is the real deal, the only featured female performer in the club, and she sings a prophetic LA VIE EN ROSE, Piaf with a twist. Gaga is dynamite, and he’s a lit fuse. Through a liquor-soaked haze, Jack sees her, can’t take his eyes off her and the screen is on fire. Later, she slugs a guy, writes a song, and gets Jack to spill his deepest secrets. I didn’t quite buy it, but I bought them.
Shortly thereafter, Ally quits her job as a food server, takes Jack up on his invitation to see him perform, and right in the middle of his show, he woos her out onstage to a microphone before a packed stadium to sing the song she’s written and to which he’s already worked out the lyrics, harmony, and accompaniment. The set up is too divinely contrived, but is quickly consumed in the explosion to follow.
That’s when Gaga made me gaga. At first, Ally refuses him, then hesitates, then behind her eyes, we see the idea suddenly take root and she lunges forward grabbing the mike like a lifeline; that glorious voice eases its way out as he joins her and she lets loose, diving into the lyric of “Shallow” which encapsulates the leap she’s just taken professionally and personally, onscreen and off. The two have what amounts to vocal sex onstage. I wanted to know EVERYTHING that would become of them after that.
I was already gaga for Cooper. He builds on a formidable, versatile repertoire of leading men, and this time convinces us that he’s a decent but damaged country music superstar. Not only has he co-written this indelible, original musical score with Gaga and a team of songwriters, but sings it too, and Cooper has a damn good voice, real and raw. As Gaga describes it, technically gifted people can’t always tell a story musically, but Cooper, a deft and relatable actor, has no trouble conveying the arc of a story in song.
Cooper also makes his directorial debut here, guiding the action with his heart on his sleeve, in emotive closeup. We see the actors’ skin and sweat, and feel tangibly connected to what is going on beneath the surface. I was struck by something similar in their faces– a softness, a roundness, a vulnerability and wildness; they just looked right together.
Then the movie unfolded and ticked off the familiar narrative. She gets famous and he slides. Too bad we lose track of her inner life in the middle of the film when Ally hires a slick manager who tricks her out in the trappings of a pop star diva. Who is this made-up Barbie backed by windup doll dancers on the bump and grind road to success? It’s hard to reconcile the spontaneous earthy singer/poet singing her heart out, with the platinum-haired, pony-tailed automaton spitting out songs on tour. We don’t see Ally sweat the soul-crushing sacrifices to convention, or even question them. Jack’s gentle warning about the fleetness of fame and the need to stay true to yourself is of no consequence. Ally neither heeds nor struggles against the advice.
Jack’s inner turmoil is much more fleshed out, thanks to a potent turn by Sam Elliott as Jack’s older brother and longtime road manager Bobby. Their interaction sheds light on the complex family dynamics that made Jack who he is. Similarly, Andrew Dice Clay hits the mark as Ally’s wannabe “better than Sinatra” crooner of a dad. Not so much Dave Chapelle as Jack’s longtime friend; I have no idea what his character’s doing in the movie.
Finally it’s Cooper’s and Gaga’s scenes that held me. Together onscreen, they are viscerally alive, inhabiting every beat of their love story, the romance and escalating tension. Watch for a scene in the bath… the way they prick each other and ratchet up the nastiness before the inevitable hurt, remorse, and doomed false starts… These scenes took their time and they pay off in honest, earned emotion. The film is not a masterpiece, but Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga together are.