When Grand Son won the Best Drama Golden Trailer Award for their work on A Star is Born. I talked about it briefly with my co-host on our trailer podcast The Cutdown, but I wanted to dive deeper into what makes the trailer so exceptional.
The trailer opens on Bradley Cooper singing to a jam packed outdoor concert:
"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."
The crowd cheers at the recognition of one of their favorite songs. Cooper leaves the stage for his car where he opens a bottle of alcohol.
"It takes a lot to change a man, it takes a lot to try..."
There's a title card for Bradley Cooper as the director of the film. There's an ear ringing sound as we see shots of Cooper playing guitar with headphones on. Dave Chapelle's character says he's worried about him. The introduction ends with Cooper walking towards a group of people sitting in the middle of a brightly lit room.
This introduction sets up Cooper as a popular singer, and we have a general understanding of his situation in life. The bottle and the group of people imply some sort of alcohol abuse, and he might have hearing problems. This section ends on a guitar downbeat, and a cut to black.
"Tell me something, girl..."
The lyrics of the song act like additional dialogue from Cooper to Lady Gaga. In the nightclub she lies down on a stage, and looks over to him; they make eye contact. He asks: "Do you write songs or anything?" She says she doesn't sing her own songs because she doesn't feel comfortable doing it. When he asks her why, she says: "Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded but they didn't like the way I look." Cooper says he thinks she's beautiful. She raises her eyebrows. We hear him sing:
Cooper rolls down a car window calling out to Lady Gaga; she turns around. "What?" He smoothly replies: "I just wanted to take another look at you." She smirks. There are some shots of Gaga happily spinning around and looking up to the sky, and there's a scene of him holding her as she plays on a zip line.
At this point in the trailer we've established Cooper is looking for a change, then he meets Lady Gaga, an introverted singer who lacks the confidence to sing her own music. The trailer has also quickly shown the beginning of a potential relationship with his flirting, and her apparent approval. Then it cuts to a scene of her watching him singing on stage. The song continues:
"In all the good times I find myself longing, for change."
He talks to her off stage while the show is still on, and tells her they're going to sing the song of hers which he loves. She absolutely doesn't want to do it; he tries to pull her on stage. He lets her go, and goes on stage saying all she has to do is trust him. We see her struggle to make a decision, but she starts walking onto the stage. It's about two thirds through the trailer, the perfect time for a big climax.
As she walks onto the stage, the trailer starts to intercut her with other scenes from the film. She looks over at him, pulls the microphone down, opens her mouth and starts singing. Her powerful voice accompanies a montage of scenes; it almost feels like she's seeing her future in this rapturous and frightening moment. This part of the song functions as a "rise" which just increases the excitement and tension of the moment; it feels like we're running towards the edge of a cliff.
Then the rise ends as we cut to cast title cards, and the guitars and drums release the energy!
"I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in I'll never meet the ground..."
There's a big montage of some dramatic moments in sync to the beat of the music. There's violence, screaming, sex, and all the super intense things trailers love to put into montages, and the song comes to a stop.
Cut to black.
"We're far from the shallow now..."
We see Cooper and Lady Gaga walking together in slow motion by a tour bus.
A STAR IS BORN
The emotional intensity of this trailer is what I find most impressive. By the end I feel like I've gone on a complete emotional arc, and yet I know I've still only seen the beginning of the story. On paper, here's the story:
Cooper is a popular singer having problems
He meets Lady Gaga, an introverted nightclub singer afraid to sing her own songs
Their relationship begins
On stage at a concert he tries to get her to sing her own music.
She goes on stage and sings the HELL out of her song
This sequence of events is in chronological order as it happens in the film, but the trailer smartly truncates it in ways to make the payoff even more dramatic. I love how the lyrics of the songs work together with the story told in the trailer. In some cases they double as dialogue, but their use as the music for the trailer gives them even more power.
The trailer expertly edits together multiple songs by pulling out some instrumentation and making the vocals almost a capella. There wouldn't have been nearly as much empty space between lyrics if the songs were used as they are in the soundtrack. Instead, the lyrics break up the sections and reverb out to give room for the story to continue. The most interesting music edit is Lady Gaga's moment on stage. In the film, there's an entire section of the song which precedes what we see in the trailer. The section they skip makes a much more gradual lead into the finale.
By removing the slow section of the song, it makes her singing look even more bold. After all, can you imagine being so afraid to be on a stage in front of a crowd of thousands, and then first thing you had to sing was this enormous moment which requires lung capacity few of us are capable of mustering!? It takes this already big moment, and makes it HUGE!
By keeping us grounded in this one scene, it makes the montage cutaways feel less trailer-like. Instead, they're shots which add to the scene rather than existing in isolation. Trailers typically don't let scenes play out this long, so we're used to montages being completely divorced from the trailer's storyline, but here the montage enhances the moment; I think it works spectacularly.
This really is an amazing trailer. The small but complete story arc, the character building, the synergy with the music, and the emotional climax are all very impressive. This is a deceptively simple trailer with relatively few cuts. And even more impressive, when it's all done, you still know there's a lot more to the story. They found a story arc from the first half of the film, and made it a satisfying, emotional experience. Of course, the actual film has many many other highs and lows which they could've delved into, but it was completely unnecessary. It's even possible they planned on making more trailers, but this was such a success it wasn't necessary.
Every story has multiple smaller stories within it. This trailer did an expert job of focusing on one, and making it larger than life. This is a great way to think of how to make a big story into a trailer. Look for something in the first part of the movie or game, which you can pay off in a satisfying way, and make it shine.