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Front Page - Friday, October 12, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘A Star is Born’ will be cradling multiple Academy Awards

There are 12 notes in an octave, Sam Elliott’s character says in “A Star is Born.” Every piece of music ever written has used these same 12 notes; the difference between one song and another is in how the composer uses them.

Likewise, writers draw on many familiar tropes when telling a story, with the difference between one story and another lying in the way the author uses them.

The story of “A Star if Born” has been told not just three times in previous films (one in 1937, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; one in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason; and one in 1976, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), but many times.

How often have we heard the tale of the brilliant but boozy musician who’s on the downward curve of his journey falling for the talented young singer who’s poised to rocket to fame? Their paths cross but their destinies do not. Anguish follows.

Some stories are so reflective of the human experience, they’re retold again and again. But I don’t believe these familiar notes have ever been assembled into a melody more beautiful, more affecting or more heartbreaking than in the new version of “A Star is Born.”

Helmed by first time director Bradley Cooper and starring Cooper and Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born” ends the movie industry’s annual Oscar race before it even begins. Many fine films will be released between now and the end of the year, but I doubt any of them will leave entire audiences quietly glued to their seats as the credits begin to roll. It was as though we all needed a moment to recover before stepping back into the harsh glare of reality.

I haven’t read any of the reviews of “A Star is Born,” but I imagine the critics have praised Cooper and Gaga’s performances, as they should have. I described it to a friend like this:

Watching Cooper and Gaga onscreen together is like sitting next to a man and a woman who have just met in a bar. He’s drunk but charming and funny, and she’s unsure about him but curious.

As you listen to their conversation, what you hear and see is human and real. There’s no fabrication or sense that you’re watching a performance; you’re simply observing a man and woman converse. At the same time, there’s something profound happening beneath the surface of their interaction. These two strangers have randomly collided, and the force of the impact is so powerful, it will shatter them.

Cooper is brilliant in the role of Jackson Maine, a man whose songs have deep rivers of truth running through them and whose concerts elevate audience high above their earth-bound lives. Fueled by genius and alcohol, he plays the guitar like the love child of Jimmy Hendrix and B.B. King – all fury and soul – but there’s barely a spark of life within him.

Maine’s hearing is going fast, and one imagines his liver is close behind, but when he meets Gaga’s character, Ally, he roars to life like a getaway car.

I’ve always liked Cooper, but I didn’t know he had a performance like this in him. He dives deep into those rivers of truth, fully submerging himself in the waters of a talented but deeply flawed man and holding nothing back when long, closely guarded emotions rise to the surface.

I imagine a lot of the reviews of Gaga’s acting use words like “luminous,” “radiant” and “dazzling,” and they would be correct. But her performance as Ally, a waitress and night club songstress, is more than a few well-chosen adjectives; it’s a force of nature.

I know Gaga has her fans, but who knew she had so much raw, unfiltered energy in her, and that she could convert it into a knockout performance as formidable as anything else on the screen this year?

As long as I’m asking questions, who knew Elliott could do more than speak in low, gravely octaves and look impossibly handsome doing it? Newsflash: the man can act, and he acts the hell out of his role as Maine’s older brother in “A Star is Born.”

And who knew Cooper could direct? Since this is his first film, no one. But he seems to understand just where to place the camera, just what to show and how to build up to big moments. (I love the close-up of Ally’s face when she sees Maine for the first time.) Cooper is evidently skilled at drawing good performances out of his actors, too, and at hitting all the right emotional beats as he tells his story.

Since I’m predicting that “A Star is Born” will win more than a few Oscars, I might as well forecast a win for best song, as well. Which one will win? “Shallow?” “I’ll Never Love Again?” “Always Remember Us This Way?” Take your pick. They’re all good.

So is the dialogue, which vacillates between poetry that poses as prose and what appears to be beautifully executed improv. In one of my favorite moments in the movie, Maine grabs Ally, holds her tight, and tells her that she has something to say, and that everyone is listening, but only for that moment. That moment will pass, and if she doesn’t speak the truth that’s inside of her before it does, it will go unheard.

It’s a perfectly written bit of dialogue, but it also slices clean through to the heart of “A Star is Born” to reveal a movie with something to say.

Carl Wilson of Slate.com writes in his review of the film’s soundtrack (“On the ‘A Star Is Born Soundtrack,’ it’s Lady Gaga that shines”) that “A Star is Born” has always been about a woman’s triumph of self-expression unfolding in a male-dominated world. But I don’t believe those are the notes Cooper, who co-wrote the film with two others, plays here. I believe he’s made a film about the shallow nature of popular culture, and how it will steal your soul like the devil if you let it.

The film’s thematic focus is debatable. But one thing is certain: “A Star is Born” is an instant modern classic. It soars on the perfectly matched chemistry of its two stars and tells a heart-rending story about imperfect individuals who are trying to hold the fractured pieces of their lives together and mend the cracked pieces of the one they love.

“A Star is Born” hit me in the gut like a sucker punch, and it took me a few moments to gather my breath and join my fellow moviegoers in silently shuffling out of the theater. It’s not an easy film to swallow, but I’m glad I saw it. It has something to say, and I hope people are listening.