Top 20 Films of 2018: #20- A Star Is Born

It’s always fun to look at my yearly Top 20 and identify patterns and present-day applications; themes that stand out across multiple films and messages that speak to the world we live in. That said, while there are a number of recurring ideas across 2018 cinema (cycles of abuse, familial histories, the ever-presence of classism, and the continuing struggle over racial inequality), what really defines 2018 as a year in film  for me is that it just tasted so incredibly good. Regardless of genre, what I found in my film-going year was a wonderful abundance of flavor. The defining feature of this year’s cinematic menu, from the most heartwarming comedy to the most austerely despairing indie drama, was a sense of luscious, swaggering vitality. It was a year with gumption, brio, and full-throated spirit. In that context, having a film as marvelously sumptuous as A Star Is Born begin my year-end list feels fitting. Bradley Cooper’s stirring directorial debut is a fine banner carrier for a year that had no shortage of swagger. A year full of relationships writ large and with infectious flair. Of old ideas carried out with such infectious panache, they made you want to forever ban the use of such a presumptuous and dismissive term as “old ideas”. 2018 saw such disparate and well-established breeds as the Western, the space exploration period piece, the teen coming-of-age film, and the workplace comedy approached with originality, yes, but more than anything, with splendid faith in the ability of rich characters, poignant emotion, and keen ideas to spark life into the most familiar genres. Such a wealth of the year’s films trod old roads while allowing us to feel like we have never noticed them this way before. It is altogether fitting that Bradley Cooper’s arresting and heartfelt riff on an oft-told story should start off this set of reviews, not only because it is such a sterling example of how to make an old form feel fresh, but also because revitalizing old forms is practically the film’s mission statement. Late in A Star Is Born, one character opines to another that all of music is really only some combination of the same twelve notes played out again and again. It is not all that often that music, film, or any other art form sees some radical new development. Most artists will inevitably find themselves using tried and true methods to tell their stories. What matters then is not so much the old song itself as the small, emotional nuances of the singer. The modulations and phrasing and where the singer allows her voice to crack and strain with vulnerabilities. Originality and innovation are fine things and we should always honor those who seek to push art forward in bold new ways. But there is also something to be said for those who can find inspiration within the lines of what already exists. When an artist performs an old standard with true conviction, there is no such thing as the same old song.

The notion of finding new life in an old-fashioned story is an important one for A Star Is Born, not only because it belongs to a long-standing tradition of stories about fame and the rise and fall of artistic fortunes, but because it is also no less than the fourth iteration of this particular cinematic property. The kinds of music the two romantic leads play has changed between versions of A Star Is Born. And in the earliest version, from 1937, the two leads were not musicians at all but rather actors. But the basic skeleton has always been that an older artist, famous but well past the zenith of his career, finds and helps to establish an undiscovered female talent. The films are about the relationship between the two leads, the joys and trials of fame, and balancing success with artistic integrity. More than anything, the hook is always that we are watching the ascension of a new star while a former star falls, beautifully and tragically, out of the sky. We first meet our old star, alt-country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, in a splendid mixture of histrionic swagger and subtle nuance that may as well be the film in miniature), at a concert where is he is already years into tumbling from his peak. He plays “Black Eyes’, the first of A Star Is Born’s numerous strong songs, and he sounds very good. Still, he is plainly drunk and staggering his way through the motions. The number cuts off midway through to a flurry of flashbulbs, as Jackson slips into the protection of his limousine and bottle of scotch. Slurring his words, he asks his driver to find him a bar somewhere in the nameless city he has just played to. He ends up in a cozy, dimly lit drag bar on the night of its weekly cabaret show. Here we meet our second star, Ally (Lady Gaga, in a powerful, confident, and subtle performance), a young, recently divorced Italian-American woman living at home with her working-class father (Andrew Dice Clay, lending lovely humor and shading to a small role) and putting in shifts at a thankless catering job to pay their bills. We gather that this cabaret night is probably the one release valve in a never-ending grind of frustrations and narrowly missed opportunities. Ally is a tremendously gifted singer and performer, as she demonstrates to the audience and to Jackson Maine when she strides across the bar to give a fiery, deliciously vampy rendition of “La Vie En Rose”. Jackson is instantly blown away and he asks her friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos, who played one of Alexander Hamilton’s friends in Hamilton), to take him backstage for an introduction. Their chemistry and shared love of music is immediately apparent, and so the meeting quickly turns into an impromptu date that climaxes with a heartfelt, breathlessly intimate conversation at 2:00 AM in an empty supermarket parking lot. Here Jackson shares the details of his dysfunctional, blue-collar upbringing and Ally reveals the first glimpses of her stellar songwriting talent. Within what feels like twenty-four hours, Jackson has invited Ally to meet him on tour in Arizona, where he invites her onstage to sing a full arrangement of the song she showed him on their first date. That song is a blazing chart-topper called “Shallow”, which has now gone from being a massive hit in a raved film to being a massive hit on the real world Billboard charts. The moment where Ally must summon the courage to take the stage is one of the most breathtakingly, breath-holdingly rapturous in any film this year. Lovers and detractors of A Star Is Born cite this moment as the film’s blissful apex, and it should be. In a film about two careers and lives, one soaring toward its peak and one plummeting to its inevitable demise, it only makes sense that the brightest moment would be that brief span of time when their arcs cross with one another. Where the film goes from there is increasingly less ecstatic and joyful as Jackson grapples with his addictions and professional insecurities, and as Ally faces the compromises that are part and parcel of mainstream success. Some see that dip in euphoria as a detriment to the film and I will concede that A Star Is Born is probably never quite as exquisite as a sheer piece of filmmaking in its back half. On the other hand, that seems entirely the point. This old story is very much about a kind of artistic hangover for both of its protagonists. The moment when the artist either loses their relevance never to get it back or when they catapult to such wild heights of success that the act of creating and performing can no longer be as joyful or sweetly uncomplicated as it once was. If “Shallow” feels like an Eden that the rest of the film can never quite return to, I would argue that is very much by Bradley Cooper’s design. A Star Is Born is a lot of giddy, heart-swelling fun in all of its spectacle and romance. But it is also finally a tragic melodrama, and anyone taken aback or disappointed by its descent into dysfunction, jadedness and sorrow has forgotten the very specific old torch ballad that Gaga and Cooper are crooning. Bradley Cooper has radically revitalized this property, but the song is still the song.

And the fact that this is fundamentally the same A Star Is Born is really the great achievement of the film. Or rather it’s the notion that we would forget what movie this is for even a minute. The film hits its potentially clichéd story beats with such passion and thunderous force in its first half that we scarcely notice how familiar those beats actually are. There are countless rise and fall biopics. There are countless romances like that of Ally and Jackson Maine. But all that stops mattering in the time we spend with them because they feel so specific and real. It is a wondrous cinematic magic trick to make an audience momentarily forget all the strings of plot and archetype dangling right in front of their faces the whole time. We suffer through a great many flat, uninspired romance films year after year. Audiences clearly have a hunger to see people in love, but so few of the talent Hollywood entrusts to capture love on screen seem to truly have their hearts in it most of the time. There seems to be a kind of disrespectful presumption that the people who want to see love stories are not picky; that, when push comes to shove, quality is secondary and people will get their romantic narrative fix through any means available to them. And, at the risk of sounding trite, I think the grand human emotion that is love deserves a whole lot better than what it gets throughout most of the film year. In its swelling, old-fashioned, star-studded way, A Star Is Born is one of the best films of recent years to capture the scope of what it feels like to fall head over heels for a person. Really, the reason that “Shallow” is such a breathtaking display of emotional fireworks isn’t just that it captures what it would feel like to finally have your moment in the spotlight. It is more than that. It is about what it would feel like to rocket to fame overnight and find the love your life in the same exact instant. It is frankly almost absurd in its delirious wish fulfillment. This is not a subtle kind of love. A Star Is Born’s romantic poetry is not scribbled delicately upon napkins and diary pages. It is written in plumes of pink smoke across the sky and emblazoned in black block letters on the marquees of sold out stadiums. And yet, so help me, there is real nuance here amidst all that jaw-dropping scope. A Star Is Born is a film that feels enormous, yet still has a canny way of filigreeing its large-scale imagery with tiny nuances. This is nothing like real-world romance. It really is the quintessence of a love that can happen only in the movies. But its epicness is also unfailingly intimate in an almost paradoxical way. Somehow, in all its larger-than-life spectacle, its romance feels completely right.

And, really, it’s not just the love scenes. Everything about A Star Is Born balances an almost impossible grandiosity with smaller flourishes. Its lovelorn music world feels like a flashy Technicolor marvel, but one that you can actually imagine real human beings existing in. Its concert stages and music halls feel like Mount Olympuses and also like fond, familiar spaces where performers line up celebratory shots of Jack Daniels just offstage for a little pre-encore courage, and where megastars still huddle together in little pep circles like nervous sixteen year olds about to perform in a high school play. The allure of A Star Is Born isn’t just in how dazzling its world is. It is also about what it would feel like to suddenly call this big, crazy show-biz milieu your own. I cannot recall the last time I saw such a fascinating mixture of spectacle and intimacy. When Jackson proposes to Ally with a ring fashioned from a bass guitar string, it feels totally appropriate for two musicians in love. But that image of the knotted metal chord encircling Ally’s finger also feels huge, like something one might see on a rock ‘n’ roll album cover. I had to think for a moment just to make sure I hadn’t seen it in some Guns ‘n’ Roses music video. That, and every other thing about A Star Is Born, would feel ridiculously bombastic if its emotions were not so sweetly sincere; if its performances were not so beautifully raw, real, and committed. That goes not only for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who both do spectacularly charismatic work, but for a wealth of smaller roles and single-scene parts. From Sam Elliott conveying years of love and fraught history as Jackson’s beleaguered older brother and road manager, to Dice Clay’s proud, lovably embarrassing Italian patriarch, to Anthony Ramos as Ally’s protective and playful companion on the road to fame. The brief appearance of Jackson Maine’s cheerful and capable tour assistant Gail made me imagine an equally fun and stirring film about the backstage life of an assistant to an aging alcoholic rockstar. I could watch a series about the sardonic, loving family of drag show performers at the bar where Ally and Jackson first meet. I think what Bradley Cooper demonstrates here is an ability to make a lavish Hollywood entertainment with all the layered observational quality of a fine indie drama. It is tremendously exciting to think of the trend a film like this could incite. Gloriously big, swooning exravaganzas with sharp scripts and rich, method-style performances. The one time Daniel Day Lewis appeared in a musical (Rob Marshall’s Nine) the results were mixed at best, but maybe Bradley Cooper is the man to make that seemingly incongruous combination finally sing.

My single favorite moment in A Star Is Born is not just “Shallow” but a specific moment within the “Shallow” performance. After Ally finishes her first verse, to ecstatic cheers, she stands agape and overcome and the song begins to build to its bridge of gorgeous, frenzied caterwauling. Ally has been standing at one of the backup microphones downstage. We have just seen her muster up all her courage and will power to even walk this far. Suddenly, Jackson beckons her forward and she makes the fateful walk to the lead microphone. We follow her in a tight tracking shot as she crosses that important bit of space that separates anonymity from stardom. From backup vocalist to center stage diva all in a matter of seconds and steps. There is just something so very satisfying about the blocking of this scene. It made me think about the real physical space that a rising star like Ally would occupy. For as much as A Star Is Born might be a giddy fantasia of the pop music world, Cooper puts exquisite care into thinking about the concrete details of this world. A Star Is Born may be unadulterated romantic wish fulfillment, but, like the very best dreams, it feels palpably real while you’re in it. And, if nothing else, the genuine thoughtfulness and care of how these stage scenes are choreographed gives A Star Is Born one of its very best qualities: sheer, exuberant conviction. Even scenes that don’t feel quite like they might in real life, like Ally’s performance on Saturday Night Live, have an impressionistic kind of emotional authenticity. Maybe this is not what the real SNL studio space looks like, but the details sure feel true. Nervously holding your breath before your first official televised appearance. Standing next to Alec Baldwin in the dark in total silence until the producer gives you both the hand signal to head to your marks. When Jackson Maine is asked to play backup guitar for a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammys, the Roy Orbison banner hanging behind the band looks monumentally large. I thought about all the crafts that go into making something pop visually on television; how colorful and gigantic everything must to be to register for the viewer, and how disorienting and surreal it must be to be surrounded by all of that. The wild, colorful bric-a-brac of show business. And, of course, as A Star Is Born increasingly turns into a story of addiction and self-destructive excess, the feeling of being dwarfed and swallowed up by the glitzy machinery of fame starts to take on the double function of letting us into Jackson Maine’s headspace. It places us in Ally’s headspace too. Stardom must be an intoxicating place to fine oneself, and perhaps even more to lose oneself. In its detailed imagining of the spaces of the music world, A Star Is Born once again feels true to life while also being ten times larger than life.

A Star Is Born is a marvelous work of acting, music, and directorial craft, but what finally makes it such a superb representation of what 2018 did right is that it reminds us that we can go back to wells that are decades or even centuries-old and still find life there. This film is no less than the fourth cover of this specific old story, and this general kind of story has been covered ever so many times more than that. The film is not the tiniest bit ashamed of that fact. It is giddy with delight to add its voice to a long-standing narrative tradition. The myriad hoary tropes set up for it to crash into and trip over turn out not to be stumbling blocks. Instead, it uses them as obstacles to nimbly dash around, leap from and parkour over. Subverting cliché while embracing it is not just part of the show. It is the feature. It is what A Star Is Born wants to offer its audience. I left this soaringly tragic melodrama with an elated tingle in my temples. Bradley Cooper had taken an old song, struck up the band, and roared at the top of his lungs, “Once more with feeling!” A Star Is Born makes formula feel moving and thrilling. It turns cliché into an equestrian course. Having a film this feverish, romantic, compelling, and downright assured in every facet eke its way into my year-end list is a firm declaration that 2018 was the finest film year in quite some time. And if A Star Is Born is not the year’s most altogether perfect film, it makes up for that handily by sounding a galvanizing rallying cry, to all the first-timers, developing talents, and wise veterans we were privileged to see make movies this year. Everybody, listen up. The rookie’s got something to say. Whatever we choose to say should be said with passion, hunger and raw emotion. This old medium of ours is still a baby with its best, most beautiful works ahead of it.  And everything old under the Sun is new again.

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