Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott
Director: Bradley Cooper
Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” sings a bearded, gravel-voiced Bradley Cooper at various points in this film. It’s a line that speaks about one of the main conflicts that this movie explores and it also carries a tinge of meta, self-aware irony as he helms what is now the fourth retelling of this classic Hollywood story. Using a time-tested formula that’s been updated for a 21st century audience, A Star is Born is a love story that depicts the fall of an old, embittered music legend and the rise of a young, gifted singer. It’s one of the stories Hollywood loves to tell about itself; about how the spotlight can bring you love, fame, happiness and fulfilment, but it always comes at a price and it can also warp and destroy you. It is at once both a fantasy and a tragedy and it is a fable that gets retold with each generation as our attitudes on fame, addiction and gender change and evolve. This is the kind of movie Cinephiles talk about when they say “they don’t make them like this anymore” and it marks both a strong directorial debut for Bradley Cooper and a cinematic star-making turn for Lady Gaga.
The original 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March told this story in the context of Hollywood itself with the former playing an aspiring actress who falls for the latter, an aging movie star in the declining years of his career. The 1954 movie with Judy Garland and James Mason, the most well-known and celebrated of the bunch, reprised the concept but added in a musical component as well. This subsequently led to the movie that this new version borrows most heavily from (at least in concept), the 1971 title that broke away from classic Hollywood and moved into a contemporary rock and pop setting. Barbra Streisand plays an up-and-coming singer and Kris Kristofferson is a washed-up, has-been rock star. This movie was panned on its release and was more or less forgotten about until this new movie brought it back into the public consciousness. In this 21st century rendition the star on his way out is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock singer whose music feels very much of that 1970s Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young era. That style of music is so much a product of its time that there isn’t really a modern equivalent for Maine (although Cooper does cite Eddie Vedder as a key influence) and it’s one of the markers of the deep gulf that ultimately separates him from his protégé, played by one of the foremost titans of the modern pop era that we live in.
After playing a gig one night, Jackson stumbles his way into a local drag bar for a drink and happens upon Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he watches give a performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’. For the first time in what we can safely assume must be a long time, the boozed-up, drugged-out-of-his mind Jackson has a moment of sobriety. He is struck with awe by Ally’s show stopping number and believes he may have found something in her that he once had himself but has long since lost: an artist “with something to say and a way to say it”. Ally, as we’ve learnt by this point, is a waitress with musical aspirations but who has never once believed that she ever had what it takes to make it. Jackson couldn’t disagree more; he is overwhelmed by Ally’s brilliance and invites her to perform with him, confident that the rest of the world will embrace her as readily as he has. Despite her reservations Ally takes the plunge; she steps out on stage with Maine, sings her heart out, and just like that she’s an overnight sensation. The two start touring together and, for a while at least, everything is perfect. Ally is on the fast lane to the top with her beau’s unwavering support and Jackson is as passionate about his music as he’s ever been. As Sam Elliott, playing Jackson older brother and manager Bobby, says with his signature gruff voice that Cooper emulates in his own performance, “it’s been a long time since he played like that”. The two are on different paths however and before long their day in the sun together comes to an end.
Lady Gaga is no stranger to this acting game (she won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story), but what’s so remarkable about her performance is how much it feels like an acting debut from a breakthrough talent. Despite being one of the biggest, most iconic superstars in the music world today, Gaga comes across as this unknown ingénue with a hidden gift for singing being discovered for the very first time. Her performance isn’t just a surprise; it’s a revelation. It shouldn’t be because one thing the preceding movies have always been good at is casting extraordinarily talented women at the absolute top of their fields as the female lead and there is no doubt whatsoever that Lady Gaga is a peer to Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Yet she brings such raw passion and spontaneous energy to her singing, especially early on when it’s just her and a microphone, that it truly is astonishing to learn just how much natural talent this star really has. When she steps onstage to sing ‘Shallow’ in front of an audience for the first time, it genuinely feels like she’s been taken completely off guard by how great she sounds and how much the crowd adores her, as if she hasn’t ever stood on such a stage and received such an ovation a thousandfold.
It would be tempting to view this stripped-down, unfiltered version of Gaga as her true, authentic self, free from the artifice of make-up, costumes and techno-pop stylisation, but not only is that not true (she wouldn’t be Lady Gaga without the Lady Gaga-ness of it all), the movie itself doesn’t appear to think so either. Or it’s at least willing to entertain the idea that Jackson Maine’s country-rock singer-songwriter style isn’t the only valid form of honest musical expression. As Ally becomes more famous and successful, so does her image and style change. She signs up with a big-time music studio who proceed to mould her into a musical icon more recognisably Gaga. Her hair is dyed orange, she learns to dance and she has stylised publicity photos taken of her so that everyone can see her face on billboards. She also appears on Saturday Night Live to sing a song containing the lyrics “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” This is the moment where we’re supposed to understand that Ally has sold out, singing a garbage, studio-commissioned song without any shred of artistry or feeling behind it. Or that’s at least how the film frames it as we watch the scene from Jackson’s point of view far away in the sidelines in stark contrast to the close-up, intimate shots we got of Ally and Jackson earlier on during their performances together.
From Ally’s perspective, the corporate side of her success is simply part of the job and she doesn’t see it as any kind of force that compels her to compromise on her art. Unlike Jackson she doesn’t believe that art and celebrity are mutually exclusive. Jackson for his part is more contemptuous about his fame, preferring to simply leave his celebrity at the door of whatever bar happens to be open and drink himself into a stupor without anybody bothering him. Even he isn’t above that desire for recognition that fame often brings though as we see when he’s pissed off about having to play back-up to a couple of younger singers at the Grammys. The movie never quite makes its mind up about which side it agrees with (and that ambivalence makes for a somewhat confused second half) but it nevertheless respects its two leads enough that it’s able to show where they’re both coming from. When the movie does look down on the artificiality of Ally’s pop music, that may have less to do with how the movie sees her success than it does with how Jackson sees it and his inability to understand the kind of artist she’s grown into (but even then his appreciation of her talent is never in doubt). On some level the film is aware that Jackson’s vision of artistic integrity is a fantasy.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Jackson Maine is how early on he realises that the prodigy he has discovered is going to eclipse him someday and that at some point he’s going to end up standing in her way or dragging her down with him. This is because of his crippling alcoholism and substance abuse which are as much the result of a difficult upbringing as they are the trappings and pressures of stardom. The film is at its weakest when it tries to explain too much and there’s a confrontation between Jackson and Bobby that could’ve packed a greater punch had the movie been more willing to leave certain things unsaid. What Cooper does do incredibly well is taking what on paper appears to be nothing more than a pathetic, irredeemable drunk and giving him a soul. For all of Jackson’s moments of weakness, shamefulness and even cruelty, there is an undeniable sense of decency about the man. He has genuine affection for those he cares about, Ally above all, and Cooper makes it clear that nothing pains him more than to inflict his demons onto others. His performance is large but it’s also a grounded, natural one in the Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart way that never attempts to run away with the film. He and Lady Gaga work in perfect harmony with one another and their chemistry is electrifying.
Cooper is to be commended on more than his acting though. As the director, co-writer, and the music’s co-composer, it’s clear that A Star is Born was a passion project for Cooper and he gave it his all. He handles the story with utter sincerity and is never afraid to get up close and personal. The concert scenes with Jackson and Ally feel both intense and intimate, putting a spotlight on Ally’s breathtaking talent while still allowing us to appreciate the personal, affective connection they share. This retentive style of filmmaking is not only expressive of the sweeping yet deep romance that they share but also of the simultaneous awesomeness and delicacy of stardom as well. As they stand on the stage together before the blurry images of their adoring fans, we are acutely aware of how human they are even in those moments. While other scenes can sometimes go on longer than they need to and say more than needs to be stated, Cooper is also good at letting the actor’s face do the talking when it’s called for (as actor-turned-directors very often are). His best decision as a director though was casting Lady Gaga.
While the movie is unable to escape the romanticisation of male self-sacrifice for the woman’s good that it inherited from its predecessors, this version of A Star is Born does allow its couple to share their most reciprocal relationship yet. The film is just as interested in Ally’s evolution as an artist as it is in Jackson’s decline and, during the honeymoon years before the heartbreak that is to come, their relationship is built on mutual respect for each other’s talents and ambitions. And, while the theme of male seniority is still there (if somebody tried to make this film with the genders reversed, it would probably end up looking like Sunset Boulevard) Jackson and Ally also find that they make each other better people. He gives her the confidence to overcome her insecurities and she gives him the strength to battle his demons, at least for a while. Whatever shortcomings there are to find in terms of plot and character, it’s Cooper and Gaga who bring it all home with their affectionate, heartfelt performances. It’s the kind of romantic-fantasy movie you don’t see very often these days where they treat the emotions being conjured with such barefaced sincerity that they don’t care if it comes across as corny. This is a movie that wants to tell you a resonant story and that wants to make you feel; on both counts it is a success.