Bradley Cooper first came to my attention as “the cute one”, in the hilarious, first Hangover film. Since then he’s achieved success as a romantic lead in movies like Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and American Sniper. Now the four-time Oscar nominee is directing himself! He has come a long way indeed. But how much of his musical performance in this attention-grabbing new film is real?
A Star is Born is already riding high, on word of mouth accolades from critics and fans, as well as awards show buzz. The film has been described as being “heartfelt, well-paced, and gutwrenchingly tragic”, and the music as “gorgeous”. While much of the attention is focused on the established musical talents of Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper is getting his share of recognition. He plays Jackson Maine, the Garth Brooks/Willie Nelson/Bruce Springsteen mashup who meets the shy, under-confident Ally Maine, played by Lady Gaga.
Cooper reportedly spent three years preparing on the role, depending on your source. Even if his performances are mostly montages of clever editing and well-rehearsed and over-dubbed guitar riffs, he manages to convince us that he is a male rock god. Six months before filming, the study got intense, with voice, guitar and piano study happening five days a week, for a full six months. He even hung out with Eddie Vedder, from Pearl Jam, just to get an idea of what the life of a rock star is like.
The scenes where Cooper is seen performing in Glastonbury were filmed in the middle of Kris Kristofferson’s 2017 set, when Cooper made a guest appearance, stepping out on stage before 300,000 spectators. This decision was partly pragmatic, as the budget was a relatively modest 30 to 40 million, and it would’ve cost a ton of money to hire that many extras. But talk about a way to prepare for “getting into it” as a touring musician! The guests in these scenes were not paid, and that makes a huge difference in authenticity. Bradley talks about the feeling of “comfort” once he’d actually stepped on that stage, as being very different from the road that came before it.
It happened so fast! Cooper said. He also got on stage at a Willie Nelson concert, and that was about eight minutes. He had only five at Glastonbury. What if people started booing you? asked Jimmy Fallon. That’d be a problem…. Laughter!
Yes, Bradley Cooper is a fine singer, perhaps not as polished as someone like Keith Urban, but the Oscar nominee can croon country with a soul-stirring ache lodged in his voice. He can even handle a guitar, thank you very much. You can see his joy in performing, so it’s fairly obvious these subjects resonate with the man, whether or not he sees himself purely “in character” when performing. And of course, there would be no slacking in his directorial debut.
Besides the raw heat of the performances, let’s talk about his look! His hair is shaggy and thus “right”. The clothes are right. He’s masculine. He’s virile. He knows how to wield his guitar.
If Lady Gaga believes he can sing…
She’s already proven her singer-songwriter versatility via becoming a pop sensation before the age of 25, performing in one outrageous costume after another, to duets with Tony Bennet and singing American musical standards at the Oscars. And yes, Gaga is a bonafide actress, having already won a Golden Globe for her vamping on AMC’s “American Horror Story: Hotel”.
When they started working together she had no idea he could sing, and she stopped playing the piano in shock, describing the moment later as “magical”. Oh my God, Bradley! You have a tremendous voice. This is coming from a woman whose love of pageantry and spectacle can sometimes obscure her level of real, musical talent.
I wasn’t aware there were three other versions of the movie already! First, there were Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937. After that, Judy Garland and James Mason had a go in 1954. I’d only remembered Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.
In Bradley’s version, the age difference is minimized. Jackson is about 40 and Ally appears at least 30. Also, Jackson’s addiction problems are not a new thing – the direct result of waning fame – but a lifelong problem. Thus the movie assumes a different slant, one that is more about doomed, stubborn love than a protege relationship gone bad. It is a parable about how fame can warp you and ruin you, and about how it’s still the only dream worth having — Hollywood’s favorite story about itself.
The film came out a year after the New York Times published its opening expose of Harvey Weinstein, thus launching the #metoo era. And this is a story rooted in some of the most cliched, well-worn Hollywood stereotypes of patriarchal predation. Whether or not you think it’s the right time for a fourth version of the tale, the chemical and musical fission between the two stars is undeniable.
What does the Music Coach Think?
Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson and guitar coach on the movie, gives Bradley a rating of “5 out of 10”, on the guitar. It is, in fact, Lukas we hear, dubbed over Bradley’s playing in the movie. But he does describe Brad as being a “natural musician” who just hadn’t had a chance to tap into that previously, and says he has “an ear”. I remember thinking you were always a musician. All I gotta do is tell you to practice! The two worked together to come up with the music and the riffs with Bradly singing how he heard his Neil Young inspired riffs and Lukas translating the tune to guitar.
Bradley Cooper, in A Star is Born, is convincing as an actor, director and a musician. While he laughs when asked if we can expect a non-soundtrack album from him any time soon, I have no doubt we will be seeing him directing and appearing in more, excellent films.