Chemistry is a hard thing to sell for some. It either works, or the fake doe eyes thrown at one another are as lifeless as the contents of a taxidermist top drawer. Thankfully, Bradley Cooper, who in his directorial début, wastes no time in lighting the match to get sparks flying between him and his co-star Lady Gaga, just because there’s enough to ignite a small town.
When we’re introduced to the films leading pair, they’re both living very different lives. Cooper’s fading star Jackson Maine walks out into a crowd of thousands to start singing ‘Black Eyes’ while his own are bloodshot red from alcohol. He’s worn, he’s tired, and he’s struggling to stand up – but the show must go on. Meanwhile, Gaga’s Ally bursts from a bathroom stall before a work shift, screaming at the ceiling after a phone call with a former lover. Both are yelling into the ether, lost in their worlds and trying to find a reason to stay in them.
As far as life before each other, that’s the most we see. From there, it’s a chance encounter in a late night drag bar, where Jackson hears Ally before he sees her, and when the two lock eyes, it’s there. The start of what honestly might be one of the greatest love stories in recent years. One that has intensely emotional highs and lows that will leave you ugly crying for a majority of the runtime and you’ve got the film’s two leads to thank for it.
Seeing the two together is intoxicating. Hunched over, dark and handsome Jackson is fascinated by the talent locked away in the beauty before him, while Ally is only momentarily phased by a man she hears every day but has never met, and who wants to whisk her away to be the musician she always knew she could be. This union is one of raw intensity and sincerity from two collaborators and creates unquestionable award-worthy performances in one another.
Praise must first go to Gaga, who shakes off the larger than life persona that she’s adored for and finds a reserved but occasionally fiery character in Ally. Hindered by insecurities that Jackson adores, she becomes his compass while also forging a path to become an icon of her own. Even with earlier on-screen roles, it’s a side we’ve never seen not just in her character performance, but also in the musical element. Gaga conjures a different voice for Ally behind the microphone, and it’s one that shatters expectations and raises the hairs on the back of your neck the second she utters the first note. If you’re not already humming ‘Shallows’ before seeing the film, chances are you will be.
So where does that leave Cooper, sharing a stage with one of the most talented musicians in the world? Well, having been taught guitar by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) and ordered by his co-star to sing live – very well, indeed. Not only does he now clearly have the skills to pay the recording studio bills, but it’s also Cooper’s best role to date. Wooing his new love with a southern drawl eerily matching his on-screen brother, played by the awesome Sam Elliot (co-creator of one the best blubbing moments of the film) it sounds like he’s gargling marbles, Cooper also masters the talent and the torment battling within his character. Hiding under a hat to keep all but Ally away and hindered by his own flaws, overly involved parties and notably Rafi Gavron’s meddling manager (channelling Gary Kemp in The Bodyguard), Jackson Maine is built on heartache, and yours will do so repeatedly before it explodes every time he stands with Ally behind a microphone.
Here is where Cooper the director excels. When the two carry a tune with each other, and the actor turned filmmaker ensures that they’re the only ones in sight. There’s very rarely a shot of the crowd basking in the music because it isn’t for them. Every melody is a way for our two leads to get lost in and seeing it all is something truly special. Uplifting and emotional and a romance for the ages, A Star Is Born may well be at number 1 for many by the end of this year and it has every single right to be.