A Star is Born is a polished take on a heavily well-tread story


Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper lend their starlight (and their voices) to a particular, if not wholly unique, take on A Star is Born.

The parallel trajectory of a star on the rise and another on the downhill skid has been popular fodder for Hollywood since its first incarnation in the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood? That film was then remade in 1937 into the feature we’re seeing rise up again in 2018, A Star is Born.

The same title has popped up in two remakes already – the popular 1954 drama starring Judy Garland and the much-maligned 1976 retread starring Barbra Streisand. But since everything old is new again, it makes sense that audiences today would get another stab at the movie, this time directed by actor Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut. Cooper and actress Lady Gaga make a compelling team in a story so glossy and sparkling it’s hard to penetrate the artifice.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a world-renowned rock star who spends his days in an inebriated haze. When he meets burgeoning songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga), Jackson is compelled to make her a star. But as Ally’s dreams come true, the couple’s relationship threatens to ruin everything.

Jackson Maine croons “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” And for a story that’s been remade four times, it’s hard to cast what’s come before aside. Directly influenced by the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake, Cooper (who both directs and co-writes this film) attempts to explore the music industry in a way that’s too familiar to be unique. Almost immediately his creation of rock music is dubious.

Jackson Maine is a whiskey-swilling rock god with a bit of twang in his music who’s always touring from place to place. When he meets Ally singing her heart out at a drag bar, he believes she’s the last pure voice in music. And when she does make it big, she’s turned into a pop star not unlike the real-life Lady Gaga herself. This is a world where the Grammys are still the sole arbiter of taste and YouTube isn’t a factor at all.

The songs themselves are the highlight, and if the movie doesn’t hook you in its presentation, the songs will. Heavily played up in the trailer, Gaga and Cooper’s first performance of “The Shallow” is a stand-out that the movie never fully lives up to. Despite being shown ad nauseaum, watching Jackson pull Ally on-stage and hearing her belt the song is masterful. The blasting sound mix, which gets oppressive (if you have hearing sensitivity, this isn’t for you), perfectly works during this scene, leaving the audience breathlessly feeling like they’re in the middle of a rock show. It’s a moment of pure possibility that is spellbinding to watch.

The rest of the songs never have the same impact as “The Shallow,” especially Gaga’s solo songs. The finale, though being Gaga’s equivalent of “I Will Always Love You,” plays better in a quiet, intimate duet between her and Cooper. In a movie questioning where the line is between simplicity and celebrity, A Star is Born works best when stripped and unvarnished.

This raw quality explains the folksiness in Cooper’s adaptation. Take away the world of pop stardom Ally lives in, and Cooper really wants to tell a story about a couple navigating fame. It’s trite, but there it is. And, really, A Star is Born thrives purely on the interactions between Cooper and Gaga, celebrity be damned.

Other characters may mention Jackson’s sexiness, but there’s little romanticism in his performance. The audience meets Jackson as he’s drunkenly trying to get it together to perform. We never see him deified, his fame is already at its peak, and what we’re witnessing is the hollow shell of a human that remains. Cooper conveys the message that Jackson is property, resigned to having his photo taken at the grocery store. With his mumbling speech and downcast eyes, Cooper plays Jackson as a man without a soul, going through the motions.

Jackson doesn’t suffer the romanticism of being special because he already is. That moniker is conveyed on Ally. Blatantly called “a way out,” Ally – whose one-name pop-star image is impossible to dissociate from the woman known as Gaga – flirts on the line of being a manic pixie dream girl. Jackson can’t muster up anything more than calling her “beautiful” incessantly, and an emphasis on Ally’s nose is meant to play up how shallow music is.

This explains why Gaga truly comes alive when she’s playing a woman, not a pop star. When the script focuses on her toxic relationship with the drunken, drug-addicted Jackson, the two crackle. An argument in a bathtub between Ally and Jackson is the moment that leaves you saying “there it is.” Gaga is forceful, irritated, and shocked by the man she loves, yet expects this from him. The (what feels like) years of their relationship passes in a brief moment. It’s almost enough for you to ignore the gratuitous nudity asked of the leading lady.

Sam Elliott is also brilliant as Bobby, Jackson’s brother and manager. It’s difficult to understand why the two needed to be brothers and not father/son, but Elliott sells a performance that, at times, is more heartbreaking than Cooper’s.

But for all its beauty, compliments of cinematographer Matthew Libatique who films everything like a Fragonard painting, it’s hard not to see A Star is Born as artificial. Movies like Beyond the Lights have focused on the struggles of stardom. And though Jackson is given a massive infusion of backstory, Ally still seems secondary.

It’s also hard to ignore how mansplainy Jackson is. This is a Cooper vanity project and it’s often hard to avoid that when so much emphasis is on making him empathetic, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Compared to previous incarnations of the character, Jackson Maine is petty and cruel, and though this is the fallout of being an addict, this isn’t Ally’s story enough to prevent us from seeing her as an enabler at best and a doormat at worst. But the music’s good.

More. The Hate U Give review: A necessary film with a dynamic lead. light

A Star is Born is safe material for a directorial debut, and it’ll be interesting to see if Cooper chooses to take risks after this. On its own merits, A Star is Born is a series of cliches that work well together. When the music is playing and Cooper and Gaga sing, it’s magic. Cooper and Lady Gaga are fantastic together and do a lot towards raising the material above its basic parameters. It never hits the heights established by the 1954 incarnation, but it’s a well-done interpretation for modern audiences.