Bradley Cooper shows he can sing as well as act and direct but it is Lady Gagas pop prowess that lifts each track, be it spectacular piano ballads or heart-rending duets
A film like A Star Is Born has one of the most ambitious tasks in Hollywood: to convince the audience that its fictional musical megastars really could be megastars in our world. Its not enough to have the charisma-wattage of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga you need the songs as well.
An example: the otherwise enjoyable TV series Empire was kept firmly in soap territory by the ersatz swag of its middling, specially penned rap tracks. Or the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore romcom Music and Lyrics, whose tunes, while strongly written, were pastiches put to work as cute plot devices rather than songs in their own right.
A Star Is Born needs to be more than that. As a serious drama about addiction, and the supernatural, transformative, sometimes erotic power of music, it needs songs that are earnest and instantly classic. Against the odds, it succeeds.
The soundtrack moves chronologically through the story, including snatches of dialogue to jog the memory (or generate light spoilers). It begins with Black Eyes, a swaggering rocknroll song performed by Coopers country rocker Jackson Maine, which ladles up big dollops of The Seeker by the Who with a drizzling of Lynyrd Skynrd and My Morning Jacket. The guitar shredding, meanwhile, is like Neil Young without the ragged edges unsurprising perhaps given that a major creative force here is Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) whose band Promise of the Real currently back Young. Nelson has numerous co-writng credits across the soundtrack, alongside Gaga, Cooper, Mark Ronson, Jason Isbell and Diane Warren.
Cooper makes you sick, really. He delivers a very accomplished lead performance in the film and, as director, crafts scenes of intimate naturalism and big-guns emotion with equal aplomb. His arguably unnecessary shirtlessness in one scene was instantly validated by the audible ripple of arousal around the cinema I saw it in. And to top it all, he can sing: convincingly snarly on blues-rockers like Alibi, stoic on the extremely strong Isbell-penned country ballad Maybe Its Time, affectingly doleful on his duets with Gaga.
His Jackson is an alcoholic who meets Ally, a waitress and jobbing singer who entrances him in a bar with a performance of La Vie en Rose. Its a nice opening performance from Gaga: the low-key setting hardens any potential ripeness, and perhaps only she could create its balance of genuine melodrama and knowing camp. Ally turns out to be an instinctive songwriter, and briefly knocks Jackson out of his stupor; the pair fall in love. Her star is indeed born, but Jackson struggles to stay in her slipstream, buffeted by his drinking, familial pain, tinnitus and perhaps a bit of jealousy.