Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. / IMDB

Bradley Cooper: The Formation of a Distinct Directorial Voice

Jackson Maine is an alcoholic and drug addict. It’s a fact that is made abundantly clear in the opening seconds of A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper's directorial debut. The film opens with a shaky, prolonged close-up shot that follows a clearly intoxicated Jackson—a middle-aged country singer with an untrimmed beard, Matthew McConaughey-esque long flowing hair, and a cow-boyish charisma. Jackson, who is portrayed by the versatile Cooper, stumbles across the stage only to down another shot spiked with some suspicious looking pills. He is a mess. But, he is also gifted. As he approaches the microphone, the bustle seems to settle, and what takes its place are thunderous cheers. Jackson’s drawl is rough around the edges but has a soothing quality to it that hypnotizes the crowd. As Jackson sets his audience adrift with a voice that displays both untamed passion and a subtle sorrow, a Prussian blue hue takes over and fades into the silhouette of Jackson, alone in the backseat of his sedan after the show. As the car slowly pulls away from crazed fans, he cracks open another bottle of whiskey.

A modern adaptation of the 1937 classic by the same name, A Star is Born chronicles the discovery and rise of promising singer Ally—played by the brilliant Lady Gaga—whose sudden rise to stardom is entangled with her muse-turned-husband Jackson Maine. The two struggle with their artistic and personal identities, all while they attempt to reconcile their love for one another. The impossible demands of Ally's burgeoning career and Jackson's chronic alcoholism collide, a conflict that eventually leads to the profound tragedy that accentuates the emotional and intellectual depth of the film.

Cooper, a keen observer and student of the art of filmmaking, utilizes a rather unconventional yet well informed method in approaching the multifaceted themes discussed in the film. Although situated within a contemporary context, A Star is Born examines some of the fundamental questions that have come to define the human experience. Specifically, the era of internet and impossibly easy media access provides the perfect backdrop that adds more nuances to the millennia-old inquiries: What is love? What is the ultimate sacrifice? What matters most in life?

To address these questions, Cooper adopts a multitude of stylistic and technical instruments that not only allowed him to exploit the potential of the cinematic platform but also form a distinct directorial language. By the end of the first act of the film, which details the Jackson and Ally's close encounters and evolving relationship, three narrative devices that would come to dominate much of the rest of the film have already surfaced.

As the opening scene showcased, Cooper tends to show an affinity to closeups—intense, personal shots that diminish the distance between the viewers and the characters without breaking the boundary established by the invisible fourth wall. Almost every single shot in the film features Jackson or Ally; the camera follows their movements, speech, and interactions in close proximity, rarely allowing the characters to slip out of anything wider than a medium closeup. Such intense intimacy in the camera language constrains the attention of the audience on the protagonists; the proximity of the camera to the characters makes it a considerably more personal narrative that invites viewers to experience the story in such a way that is incredibly intimate.

In fact, the audience is kept at such close distance to the characters that they almost share the same air; every breath the characters take breathes into the sensibilities of the viewers. Such sensations are crucial to the deeply personal themes explored by each character's narrative arc: Ally struggles with deep-seated insecurity and constantly seeks approval in a patriarchal society, while Jackson struggles with his troubled youth and his turbulent relationship with his abusive father that ultimately resulted in his alcoholism. The barrier between the real and cinematic world is minimized by the simple visual mechanism of proximity; the characters’ struggles and suffering are truly, viscerally felt by the audience, which allows them to develop a genuine emotional response that also encourages contemplation.

Additionally, Cooper makes extensive use of carefully designed color schemes, which contributes greatly to establishing the inherent qualities of the characters, reflecting Ally and Jackson's evolving relationship and personal metamorphosis. As the audience is first introduced to Jackson, his color palette is dominated by a prevailing dark blue—a color that suggests experience and also a pronounced sense of detachment. The blue palette is one that is most prominent during his concert scenes, an indicator that his artistic desires are the dominant aspects of his personal identity. Ally’s color palette, on the other hand, is distinctly red and warm. When Jackson first meets Ally in the bar, he is engulfed in the unfamiliar yet disarming warm hues that accompany Ally; as his blue hues are left outside of the bar scene, an influx of overwhelming warmth in color implies that Ally would be of great importance to and exert great influence on Jackson.

As the two perform together for the first time, the two distinct colors are depicted as complementary to each other on screen for the first time. Initially, they inhabit separate regions on the screen; yet, as the two gradually learn to cooperate and their performance of the song “Shallow”(Cooper’s singing is a pleasant surprise) reaches the pinnacle of harmony, the colors merge and eventually dissipate into a more neutral tone. A soft yellow hue comes to accompany the development of their flourishing artistic companionship and romantic relationship. Later on in the narrative, when their relationship stabilizes and they settle down in the cottage, the color scheme shifts to a much softer, pastel palette that seems to suggest domestic happiness. However, this is sporadically disrupted by Ally’s flourishing career. In particular, as she preps for commercial stints against the backdrop of a restless LA, her career engages a much brighter and more flamboyant set of colors. Ally’s transformation into a pop singer, as reflected by the color scheme, seems to cause much of the discord, as both her and Jackson begin to question if she has lost her authenticity to the demands of a shallow public.

An observant student of the cinematic masters, Cooper shows an appreciation for a grounded narrative approach, specifically in his utilization of a combination of showing and telling. The first half of the film relies heavily on telling as it is composed almost entirely of dialogue—intimate, playful conversations between Jackson, Ally, and other characters that reveal much about their personality and past. In one of the tone-defining early scenes, they share their passion for music in the bar through conversation. Later, in the convenience store parking lot, Jackson's past and Ally's future are intertwined. Jackson speaks of his upbringing, a theme frequently revisited and believed to be the source of his self-destructive behaviors, while Ally speaks of her inhibitions mainly caused by insecurities about her physical appearance and talent. Cooper chooses not to use complex transitions or fancy angles. Instead, he primarily relies on the traditional shot and reverse-shot method that draws most of the attention towards the content of the conversation and avoids any potential distractions by stylistic elements.

The second half of the film sees a shift to showing as the primary storytelling device. As the relationship becomes strained due to conflicts in work schedules and personal problems, Jackson and Ally gradually communicate less frequently. At this point, Cooper employs more pronounced symbolism in his cinematography; the giant poster of Ally in LA mirrors the belittling effects Ally’s success has on Jackson, while Jackson’s verbal harassment on an exposed Ally in the shower reveals Jackson's deep-rooted alcoholism that takes the form of animosity towards Ally. Cooper also understands the power yielded by silence. In perhaps one of the best and most nuanced scenes in the film, Cooper shows Bobby, Jackson’s significantly older brother and de facto guardian, pulling away in silence after Jackson’s teary confession of love. Bobby does not utter a single word, and the camera lingers on his face in a moment that captures the ferocity of brotherly love and pain.

As the film approaches its tragic conclusion, conversations gradually become extinct—emotionally charged songs begin to take their place. Cooper understands that music better conveys the emotional gravity of an ending relationship and life. Cooper doesn’t try to deliberately rationalize the most intricate human emotion of love and loss in a blatant expository manner; rather, he lets music—the instrument whose power to inspire has played a central role throughout—to reconcile overwhelming grief with the potential for an ultimate catharsis. Such an emotional release is accessible to both Ally and viewers, who have been faithfully following this pilgrimage of immortal love doomed for despair in a flawed, apathetic world. 


Raymond Cai