'A Star is Born' Starts Off Great But ... [TIFF Review]

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"A Star is Born" is a remake of a remake of a remake. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I will give some credit to actor-director Bradley Cooper for making something that feels brazenly fresh out of this tired old story, for which the 1953 classic Judy Garland version still stands as king of them all.

Depicting the rise and fall of  popular country rock musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) and Ally, the talented musician (Lady Gaga) he discovers at a drag bar, Cooper shoots the hell out of this picture, he is by DP extraordinaire Matthew Libatique's vividly rich frames; They both find ways to bring some much-needed humanity to a story told countless times before, and not just through the 'Star is Born' title.

Gaga in a supposedly, err, star-making role, has her character Ally setting off a spark in has been Jackson, something that he hasn't felt since his earliest days of live performance. He decides to bring her on tour and, lo and behold, the public loves her, he loves her, and she nabs a record deal but sacrifices her art for immense pop stardom, which irks him to no end. Gone is the singer-songwriter he fell in love with and in is the manufactured song and dance shtick that most pop stars dig themselves in for fame and fortune. 

During the film's energetic first half we are thrust into a world of music that feels genuine and authentic, Cooper perfectly sets up and introduces his characters with the surprising panache of a veteran filmmaker. His scenes with Gaga are filled with chemistry, driven by, the movie strenuously implies, the power that music can do to bind two lonely souls together.

The soundtrack is great, especially the early country-rock performances, and this is when the film hits its stride, perfectly showcasing how talented not only Cooper but, especially, Gaga can be when commercial pop is stripped down for actual instrumentation -- a particular highlight is when Gaga decides to perform on piano, with Cooper assisting on a beautifully strummed acoustic guitar. These performances, all set in the film's first hour, are incredibly shot by Libatique, evoking a kind of lived-in concert experience that has rarely been put down this passionately on celluloid.

Of course, Amy's rise turns into Jackson's fall, and their relationship turns sour, but there's never a breakup. She tries to help him cope with alcoholism and depression, but to no avail. That's when the film starts to hit its false notes and the conventional narrative beats come to fruition. The excitement of the film's first hour is sacrificed for a more cliched permanent stay in its second. Gaga takes over and Cooper's Jackson becomes the tragic self-deprecating cliche I hoped he wouldn't become; gone is the dynamic between both actors that made the first hour so electrifying. Gaga's performance also starts to take a hit, as her role begins to demand more emotional context and less musicality. She can't hit the dramatic notes at all. In fact, her performance becomes damn-near strained by her total lack of any sort of acting background.

Rise and fall stories tend to be laid out for audiences through predictably dull, beat-by-beat narrative structures. For all the good intentions and talent involved, this fourth rendition of "A Star is Born" has its heart in the right place, but is hampered down by the limitations of the source material. Cooper had a chance to expand and even create his own personal take on the story and at times he does just that, but, for the most part, he mostly plays it safe and decides to pay homage to the forebearers (especially Kristofferson and Streisand) instead of taking the risks needed to raise his film above the artistic echelons.