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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

A Star Is Born movie review: a perfect movie in all ways

A Star Is Born green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Instantly sweeps us up in its passion, its electricity, its music, and characters to fall in love with. Lady Gaga is a revelation. It’s impossible to believe Bradley Cooper has never directed before. I adore this movie.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Bradley Cooper
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

So first off I have to confess that I have not seen a single one of the numerous other Star Is Born movies. I suspect that this will be true of many moviegoers who will nevertheless be drawn to this new version by the presence of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, so I feel pretty good about being able to offer the perspective of a critic who doesn’t bring in preconceived notions or love/indifference/hate for the previous films to color my reactions to this one. Perhaps I’ll give myself the project of watching all the others, seeing this one again, and then doing a massive compare-contrast. But for now: I come to 2018’s A Star Is Born totally fresh.

A Star Is Born: a cautionary tale about getting a big head when you get famous.

A Star Is Born: a cautionary tale about getting a big head when you get famous.

And… I absolutely love it. Adore it, in every way a movie can be adored. This is a MOVIE, by which I mean that it does all the things we want a movie to do when we sit down in the dark with it: A Star Is Born instantly sweeps us up in characters we immediately fall in love with. It is passionate in all ways. It is electric. There were moments when I cried and I couldn’t even tell you why I was crying, except that the emotion and life that the film is bursting with spilled over into me, filled me up, and then spilled out of me in those tears. (I am welling up again recalling that feeling.) It’s a perfect film: there is not the single tiniest element here that is out of place, and nothing is missing.

Movies like this are so rare, and so welcome.

The story is classic — obviously, since it keeps getting remade to mostly general acclaim. Superstar boy musician Jackson Maine (Cooper: Avengers: Infinity War, 10 Cloverfield Lane) meets talented but not-even-up-and-coming girl singer Ally (Gaga: Muppets Most Wanted, Machete Kills) and takes her under his wing, and then into his heart; she falls hard, too. Her career soars, thanks to their collaboration, while his sinks, thanks to his substance abuse. Part of what moved me so damn much is the feminist fantasy of their relationship: Jackson is a man who sees — truly sees — Ally, and truly hears what she has to say with her music. She’s gorgeous, of course, but that’s not why he falls in love with her. This shouldn’t feel like such a flight of impossible fancy, and yet there we are.

I swear that the song Jackson and Ally write together has hints of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in it...

I swear that the song Jackson and Ally write together has hints of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in it…

The music is extraordinary, and a character in itself. Jackson’s is a sort of rousing country rock, with a touch of Springsteen; he fills stadiums with worshipful fans, and gets recognized everywhere he goes. Ally’s music is… well, we don’t know much of what her music is when we first meet her, at the same moment he does: She is belting out Edith Piaf songs in a drag bar, just for fun, when he pops in for a drink after a show; later, when she shyly admits to being a songwriter, we start to hear her stunning ballads and, later still, some wild pop. All of the movie’s music (except for a few covers, like the Piaf) is original, and was developed by Cooper and Gaga in concert — pun intended — with the development of their characters. Which means that it doesn’t matter whether the styles of music here are to your usual taste. It is so keyed to Jackson and Ally — whom, recall, you have fallen instantly in love with — that you cannot help but love their music, too. (Other contributors to the movie’s music include Lukas Nelson, who also appears as a member of Jackson’s band; Diane Warren; Mark Ronson; and frequent Gaga musical partner DJ White Shadow. I will be buying the soundtrack the moment it goes on sale this Friday.)

We already know that Gaga can sing. As an actor in her first significant role (she’s had a few onscreen cameos before), she is a revelation: incredibly naturalistic, not a hint of artifice or discomfort. The screen loves her, and if she doesn’t love it, she is hiding it well — the title of this movie applies to her as well. Her chemistry with Cooper is extraordinary, that uncommon movie magic that goes a long way toward convincing you that what you’re watching is utter truth. We already know that Cooper can act. But can he sing? *swoon* He’s not only doing his own singing here, he’s doing it live on camera, not even lip-synching to prerecorded music; his voice is the stuff of musical megastardom. (Some people seem destined for fame no matter what they do. If Cooper had chosen music, he could have been a Jackson Maine.) Cooper is singing live, behind-the-scenes news informs us, because he wanted Gaga to do the same, because it’s just more real that way.

Sometimes supporting your man means literally dragging his drunk ass off the tour bus...

Sometimes supporting your man means literally dragging his drunk ass off the tour bus…

And Cooper got to make that decision because he also directed this marvel, his feature debut, and it’s absolutely impossible to believe that he has never directed a movie before. (His talent goes further: he also cowrote the screenplay, with Eric Roth [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button] and Will Fetters [The Lucky One, Remember Me].) There are moments here that create enormous emotional power almost entirely as a matter of a directing decision: put the camera here to capture that for this particular effect. (There’s a zinger end to one scene that is seen from the back seat of a car, which is a wholly unexpected angle in context; the sucker punch of it has lingered with me since.) The best we can typically expect from inexperienced directors is that they just stay out of their own way, but Cooper has given us a movie that is beautifully directed yet never showy about it, and one that doesn’t look like a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before.

This Star Is Born is the kind of movie that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place, and the kind that will sustain you for the long drought until its like comes along again. I can’t wait to see it again.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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A Star Is Born (2018) | directed by Bradley Cooper
US/Can release: Oct 05 2018
UK/Ire release: Oct 03 2018

MPAA: rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, drug misuse)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Beowulf

    But…..did you like it?

  • Bluejay

    Sold. I’ve been wanting to see this since the first trailer, which hinted at Cooper’s crooning and Gaga’s monster voice, and haven’t checked out the full song they released in advance because I want to be freshly blown away when I see this.

    it doesn’t matter whether the styles of music here are to your usual taste. It is so keyed to Jackson and Ally — whom, recall, you have fallen instantly in love with — that you cannot help but love their music, too.

    I love when that happens — when a character is so compelling you find their tastes and interests compelling, or when a storyteller is so obviously in love with their subject they make you love it as well.

    I guess we’ve come a long way from this and this. :-)

  • TheLastDreamer

    Here is a movie that wasn’t even on my radar until the last couple days. But reading all the glowing reviews has shot it up my list. This is the next movie I plan on seeing. Maybe I’ll treat myself this weekend.

  • This is why critics are necessary. :-)

    Enjoy the film!

  • I guess we’ve come a long way from this and this. :-)

    Whether you mean her or me, both are true!

  • gps1138

    Just saw it and wow. Just wow.

  • Bluejay

    Just saw this, and oh god yes, it’s good. From the moment the giant title unfurled across the screen, Golden-Age-Hollywood style, I got shivers down my spine. Also just found out: not only is that Bradley Cooper’s real voice, it’s Bradley Cooper’s real dog. :-)

    Totally agree on Cooper’s directorial choices. He’s absolutely assured in his choice of angles and in how to effectively convey moments without belaboring them.

    Gaga’s acting and Cooper’s singing are a revelation, but so are some of the other folks in the movie. Who knew that Dave Chappelle and friggin’ Andrew Dice Clay could be such compelling dramatic actors? (Maybe I missed their acting work before, but it was certainly a revelation to me.)

    I do have one complaint: [very minor spoiler] I didn’t like how the movie used concert dancers as shorthand for “art that’s inauthentic and lesser.” Yeah, tell that to Beyonce and her crew. Dancers work HARD, have talent up the wazoo, and in the hands of a good choreographer they can elevate a song’s performance into the stratosphere. Saying otherwise smacks of the same snobbery that thinks Dylan sold out when he picked up an electric guitar.

    Bonus: As a Brandi Carlile fan, I was very pleased to see her onscreen in the Roy Orbison tribute scene. If you haven’t heard of her, you’ve been missing out (IMO) on one of the best singer-songwriters working today.




  • Well, shoot. I read your entire review before seeing the movie because I didn’t intend on seeing the movie, and you’ve kind of convinced me that I should see the movie.

  • friggin’ Andrew Dice Clay

    I was almost convinced that it couldn’t be Clay I was watching — like, I *thought* I recognized him, but then I second-guessed myself — because he was *so* good.

  • I always try not to spoil without giving notice, so I hope you can still enjoy the movie.

  • Danielm80

    He was also terrific in Blue Jasmine, a movie some people may have skipped because of the person who directed it (or because they already saw A Streetcar Named Desire.


  • Danielm80

    The New York Times Magazine, on the other hand, was more than happy to give away the ending (possibly on the belief that everyone has seen the three or four previous versions by now).

  • Tonio Kruger

    Even if you haven’t seen the older versions, the ending of the Judy Garland version has been so often mentioned by old movie buffs that it’s one of those movie endings that almost every old movie buff knows even if you haven’t yet seen the actual movie. Just like the endings of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind are familiar to many people who have never seen those movies.

    Still it would have been nice if the NYTM showed some consideration for to the younger potential audience members who may not have heard of those older movies.

  • Bluejay

    I don’t think this is the kind of movie a spoiler can ruin. It’s not as if there’s a clever plot twist out of left field; you can pretty much see the broad contours of where the characters and their relationship are heading. The pleasure lies in the richness and depth of the performances, both in acting and in song.

    Still thinking about this film, days later. I’m gonna have to see it again.

  • Danielm80

    FWIW, I’m a huge movie buff, and I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind all the way through, I didn’t see Casablanca until I was in my 20s, and I still haven’t seen any non-Gaga version of A Star is Born. So I’m one of those younger potential audience members, and I’m 46.

    I also try to be sympathetic to the people who are rebooting Spider-Man and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and assume that there really is a new audience for those stories.

  • You didn’t spoil anything. I just prefer reading your reviews after I’ve watched. If I’m on the fence and want to see your opinion first, I just glance at the light rating.

  • Danielm80

    To be honest, the new ending didn’t work for me. I’ve been reading this (spoiler-filled) article, which discusses the plot details of every version of the movie:


    I suspect that the whole second half of Cooper’s film works better in dialogue with the previous versions (which, of course, I wasn’t familiar with). On the other hand, the acting, the music, and the cinematography were so spectacular that I kind of didn’t care.

  • Tonio Kruger

    FWIW, I saw Gone with the Wind when I was still in high school and Casablanca just roughly eight years ago. I saw bits and pieces of the latter movie way before then but the first time I ever sat down and watched the entire film was about eight years ago.

    Speaking of movie endings everyone knows without having seen the movie in question, I just realized the other day that I’ve never seen Thelma and Louse even though its famous ending has been referenced by such TV shows as Animaniacs and Modern Family.

    As for the Buffy reboot, I’ve gushed too much on my blog about the recent “Latina vampire slayer” episode on last season’s X-Files to pretend I don’t understand the appeal but I can’t help but feel sympathetic to those people of color whose argument against it is essentially “why can’t we tell our own stories for a change?” If nothing else, they’re certainly more sympathetic than the old “but so-and-so is supposed to be white” argument.

  • Bluejay

    I can’t help but feel sympathetic to those people of color whose argument against it is essentially “why can’t we tell our own stories for a change?”

    My response is always: It doesn’t have to be either/or. We can reimagine old roles with diverse casts, AND tell new stories with diverse casts. Advocating for one doesn’t have to mean putting down the other.

  • Fuck that shit.

  • dionwr

    I hope you do your project, see all the versions, and go for the compare-and-contrast. I’ve seen them all, and for my money, this is by far the best of the bunch. I’d be interested in what you think.

  • David_Conner

    I knew him as a decent actor before he hit it big as a comic. He was good as a crook on TV’s Crime Story.

  • David_Conner

    I’m super late to the party on Lady Gaga, mostly because I stopped following new music circa 1989.

    I sorta assumed she was one of the many interchangeable pop stars with 1% talent, 49% self promotion and 50% Autotune. Then I saw her Super Bowl performance and learned she had an amazing voice and the fearlessness to perform while making a 30 story dive and dressed as a Batman villain.

    Now I find that she’s an amazing actress, and totally natural, too!

  • Bluejay

    If you liked the Super Bowl performance and the movie, I recommend the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. It gives you a glimpse into her world in the weeks/months before her Super Bowl show, and shows her being pretty brutally honest with herself, having zero tolerance for toxicity and bullshit at work, struggling with chronic pain and illness, and cherishing her deep family ties. (As my wife said after watching it, “she’s good people.”)

    Funnily enough, one of the first things she casually mentions to the camera is that she’s just met with Bradley Cooper about being in a movie.

  • David_Conner

    Thanks, I’ll check out that documentary!

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