A Star is Born swoons. The movie—Warner Bros. Pictures’ fourth variation on the tale—loves musical crescendos, romantic declarations, dreams that come true and then are gaspingly dashed. Mostly, the movie loves itself. And so the best way to watch A Star is Born is to convince yourself that you love it too.
I liked it. The directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, A Star is Born has a bold, go-for-broke showmanship that you can’t help but admire. Whatever hubris it took for Cooper to embark on the project is also channelled into the story, which traces the rise of an unknown singer (Lady Gaga) who is discovered by a burnt-out, alcoholic, incredibly famous roots rocker (Cooper). There’s joy in watching Cooper, for the most part, actually pull this off—including the gamble of casting an acting novice in the crucial title role.
If this A Star is Born was going to work, Cooper and Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) had to convincingly connect onscreen. And they do. Their initial meeting might be the movie’s highlight. Drunk after putting on a New York City concert and in search of more to drink, Cooper’s Jackson Maine stumbles into a drag club, where Germanotta’s Ally is about to perform. (She’s the only woman allowed to regularly take the stage, on account of her powerhouse voice.) Ally slays the crowd, including Jackson, who watches from the bar. At one point, she confidently marches into the audience, drapes herself across the top of the bar, and dramatically turns her head, locking eyes with Jackson. It’s a wonderful moment of flirtatious mystery: he’s smitten, she pauses (it’s not clear if she recognizes him or not), and then continues her song. Even in dive bars, if it’s your show, the show must go on.
Germanotta has the voice and presence to carry the musical numbers, of course (and there are a lot of them), but more thrilling for me were the close-ups she delivers. From that mid-performance stare to another moment of raised eyebrows to the steely resolution that settles on her face when she later accepts Jackson’s invitation to join him onstage, Germanotta’s endlessly, instinctively expressive face ably makes up for some of the shaky dialogue scenes. It wouldn’t be accurate to say she’s a natural—her charisma comes from the hard work of countless, image-driven music videos—but her face is undeniably a magnet for the camera. And Cooper is smart enough to leave the camera focused there.
Cooper, after all, is rooting for her both as director and in character. After her performance in the drag club, Jackson blearily stumbles through some awkward flirtation backstage, but eventually he gets to something more interesting: an admission that her talent has entranced him. While waiting for her to change after the club has closed, he steps onto the empty stage and performs a soft, 2 a.m. rendition of one of his hits. (“Maybe It’s Time,” my favorite song in the film.) When Ally comes out from the dressing room, she’s the one who’s entranced. His clumsy compliments didn’t mean much, but this she could be interested in.
Lady Gaga has the voice and presence to carry the musical numbers, of course, but more thrilling for me were the close-ups she delivers.
Much will be made of Cooper’s singing and speaking voice, which clearly imitates—for good reason, we come to learn—the grizzled growl of Sam Elliott. Elliott eventually appears as Jackson’s long-suffering tour manager and wearily delivers the film’s best performance. (Turns out few things are as moving as Sam Elliott trying his manly best not to shed a tear.) Cooper also does a lot of borrowing from the 1954 A Star is Born, with Judy Garland and James Mason. The big, bold title shot is a Technicolor homage right out of the gate, as is the red lighting scheme that he and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) return to throughout. The earlier A Star is Born (which sits between the 1937 and 1976 versions) also uses camera flashbulbs as a recurring, intrusive motif, which Cooper continues here.
Something distinctive about this Star is Born is the way Cooper and editor Jay Cassidy cut some of the scenes. Moments frequently end abruptly, or at least before you expect them to, sending us suddenly into another time and place. This is especially the case in one or two instances where a bit of musical performance is about to begin, only to be interrupted by a hard cut. It’s a jarring way of allowing the music to exist only in our imaginations, even as it undercuts the mythology of performance. Frequently, the very next scene is one not of romantic mystery, but difficult reality.
So far, so swoony. But then, around the halfway point, A Star is Born shifts its attention from Ally’s rise to Jackson’s alcoholism. And it does so without losing that romantic lens. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie glorifies his drinking, but it does turn it into material for melodrama, rather than tragedy. Suspense is wrung from wondering what will next cause Jackson to drink, a tiresome gambit that puts the blame not on him, but those around him. Indeed, most troubling might be the way the movie intertwines his alcoholism with Ally’s success as a pop artist. During one argument, Jackson tells Ally her music is “embarrassing” (in the movie’s world, having backup dancers is a sign of selling out, which is a curious distinction to make considering Lady Gaga’s career). Later, Ally delivers a gratuitous performance on Saturday Night Live that sends Jackson to the bottle. The implication is that if Ally only made “true” music—his kind of music—he wouldn’t need to drink.
The mythologizing of Jackson Maine continues through a very public bottoming out, a stint in rehab, then a grandiose finale that I found particularly self-aggrandizing (the clincher for me is a particular shot of Jackson’s well-worn hat). By its end, the movie has become an all-out weepie, and something of a false one. I’ve been listening to a lot of contemporary country music lately (my neighbor’s choice, not mine) and A Star is Born, though it features more rock and pop, shares the sensibility of a hokey country song about a rocky relationship: rough and tumble, yes, but ultimately romantic in a dumb, doomed, dewy-eyed way.