“Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave… Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.”
Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born (2018) is the third remake of William A. Wellman’s 1937 film of the same title. If you don’t know what to watch next, the musical romantic drama is available on Amazon Prime.
Cooper’s directorial debut was nominated in eight categories at the Ninety-First Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Cooper himself earned nods for his work as lead actor as well as his contribution to the adapted screenplay.
Co-star Lady Gaga (and Best Actress nominee) won Best Original Song for “Shallow.”
It is the story of an alcoholic country musician named Jackson Maine (Cooper) who falls for a waitress named Ally Campana (Gaga) after he sees her deliver an intoxicating cover of “La Vie en rose” at a drag bar.
When Jackson learns Ally has given up on pursuing a career in music because of all the rejection she’s faced, he uses his fame to help her get discovered.
But once Ally’s meteoric rise to success eclipses his own, Jackson’s drinking drags him down to new lows, and threatens to tear down their relationship with it.
As filmmaker, star, co-screenwriter, and co-producer, Cooper runs the risk of Shyamalanian self-indulgence. But with his stringy hair and slurred growl, he paints an unflattering portrait of alcoholism.
Indeed, the most redeeming characteristic about Jackson is how he helps Ally find the happiness she deserves for her talent.
As for Gaga, the focal point in this fairytale of a server who becomes a pop star, she runs the risk of playing herself, which could go one of two ways: chewing the scenery with her outrageous onstage persona; or striking a flat note with a pedestrian performance.
Instead, she harmonizes with Cooper’s mise-en-scene, balancing a melodious complement between “personal” and “transformative” in her characterization of Ally.
The power of the two romantic leads is critical to the chemistry the audience feels between them.
That Cooper could inspire three Oscar-nominated turns in his first project, is testament to his potential as a director – Sam Elliot, who speaks the “twelve notes” line, was nominated for his supporting role as Jackson’s half-brother and manager, Bobby Maine.
The Academy did not recognize Cooper’s directing work, however. It is disappointing that he chose to shoot a fourth A Star Is Born in a market already oversaturated with reboots, remakes, and sequels.
And it is problematic that the poorly aged template for his wish fulfillment fantasy is a love story between a jealous, narcissistic man who forces his partner to be strong enough for both of them and save him from his own self-destruction (when she isn’t using him for her own ambition).
Still, the way Cooper sees “those twelve notes” is as much a cinematic celebration as it is musical.
Matthew Libatique’s award-nominated cinematography frames Jackson and Ally in fluid closeups as intimate as a lover’s gaze, with lens flares as dazzling as the adrenaline rush of falling in love, or watching your dreams come true.
The cheering crowds at their concerts are relegated to background noise for the courtship at the heart of the picture.
Meanwhile, the dance between the movie’s visual and auditory aesthetics is no less charged than one of Jackson and Ally’s duets. Sound mixers Tom Ozanich, Dean A. Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow were among the nominees at the 2019 Oscars ceremony.
The ringing of Jackson’s tinnitus deafens viewers to the music he shares with Ally, the passion she stirs in him even as he drinks himself half to death, and it invites us to live the tragedy of his downfall.
While the ballad of Jackson and Ally is not immune to the remove of critical viewership, it is stylistically self-aware that it is a tale as old as time and a song as old as rhyme.
And so we can be forgiven for enjoying it as something of a love letter to the “twelve notes” that bring two creative souls together in a consummation as intense and brilliant as they are.