Romance, rock music, addictions, and hard truths about the entertainment industry are all par for the course in Bradley Cooper’s new adaptation of “A Star Is Born.” As the fourth version of this classic story, you might think there’s little new material to add. Especially when you consider the ultra progressive era we live in, a story about the fragile female starlet finding love and fame from a successful male might feel outdated. Thankfully, that is not the case. “A Star Is Born” is a powerhouse drama that features spectacular music, wonderful cast chemistry, and adept filmmaking with hints of brilliance.
Is the story cliche? Yes. There’s no denying it. Bradley Cooper plays Jackson (Jack) Maine, a successful country-rock singer who comes across Ally (Lady Gaga), a wannabe performer trying to catch her big break. As Jack recognizes Ally’s talent and gives her a literal stage to sing on, a romance blossoms, and soon Ally is much more in the spotlight than her newfound love interest. When told right, this classic story can still entertain and tug at the heartstrings, and that’s because Cooper’s adaptation relies on a variety of themes and subjects than just the familiar story. And that works twofold.
First, we have a story that started in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March), told again in 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and then in 1976 (with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Up to the mid-70s, this narrative works as a classic Hollywood tale, poised to win Academy Awards and force tears out of audiences. It seemed to be remade for a new generation, but this time we have over 40 years between adaptations. And 2018 is a radically different period than any of the above (both socially and politically), especially in the entertainment industries. Yet Cooper’s film works for 2018. On surface level, it could be because it features a drag bar and blends contemporary pop with country-rock, but on a deeper level, this story tries to be as raw as it can. The ugly side of the music industry is shown in full force, and even without the presence of social media (it’s not addressed in the film too much), it’s a sad but true reality that many modern stars have had to face. This includes Lady Gaga (more on that in two paragraphs).
Second, “A Star Is Born” addresses addiction and codependency on the most realistic level possible. Jack and Ally are complex characters without a stark black and white contrast. The best example comes midway through the film, where Jack is clearly jealous of Ally’s success. However, he is right to criticize the shallowness and superficiality of her pop songs (one of them being completely and shamelessly about sex). He is a sympathetic character. But – he is also a terrible drunk. So we side with Ally because she’s charming and likable, even though she’s the one making the sub-par music. But – she is a codependent for Jack’s drinking, covering up his behavior and giving him too many “one more chances.” Grey areas abound for both the musical plot and personal story, and I absolutely love that kind of ambiguity.
To make those grey areas shine with authenticity – you have to have stellar chemistry. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are both winners in this film. Though much of the focus is on Gaga (a literal movie star being born before our eyes), Cooper has a career best on his hands. He knows how to walk the tightrope between sympathetic rockstar and the angry, unforgivable alcoholic. Gaga compliments all of this with ease – we see the pain in her face when Cooper falls over drunk, but also the ease when he stands sober. The main point is that neither steal the show from the other.
A brief note on Lady Gaga – it seems like some of the movie is autobiographical for her. She struggled briefly as a young starlet trying to find work in the music industry, and when Ally says that people like her voice but not her looks, we might remember that Gaga had the same experience when she started. Also, when Ally is famous, she finds it all overwhelming – much like Gaga did after near-overnight success in 2008. She wrote an entire album about it!
In order to be a film about music, you have to have a great soundtrack, and “A Star Is Born” has one of the best. Each song tells part of the story and moves it along, explaining hidden meanings and emotions. You can’t have films like “Ray” (2004, Taylor Hackford), “Walk the Line” (2005, James Mangold), or “Get On Up” (2014, Tate Taylor) without the songs having proper placement to supplement the story, and “A Star Is Born” knocks this concept out of the park. Even the superficial pop has its place. “Shallow” and “I’ll Never Love Again” are the two best cuts from the soundtrack, the first being the most marketable (and arguably the main theme), and the second being an emotional ballad resembling other classics like “I Will Always Love You” and “My Heart Will Go On.” The soundtrack’s ambiance actively stays in your head. Plus, Cooper and Gaga sing live onscreen instead of lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks (at Gaga’s insistence).
Now let’s talk about Bradley Cooper as a first time director. In short, he has a promising career ahead of him. 2018 has been a year of films with fantastic openings, and “A Star Is Born” may have the best of them. It starts with an adrenaline fueled concert scene with swinging camera angles and flashing lights, then transitions to a wonderfully staged still shot of Ally in the middle of a public restroom, fed up with life. Finally ending with a slow reveal of the title card as Ally walks off to her show at the drag bar, the opening is “filmmaking 101” from start to finish. Other brilliant moments feature shaky and stylized cinematography to give off a documentary vibe, and great sound design.
The only flaw of the movie is its length. “A Star Is Born” is a long film, and the bad part is that it feels long. It’s only in a few select moments, but Cooper needed to spend much more time in the editing room to trim this into an even better tour de force. Luckily, it’s not so bad that I would avoid seeing this film again. In fact, this movie has a quality to it where you want to see it again.
When done right, this powerful story will never grow old, and I predict that this version of “A Star Is Born” will last the ages, and maybe even pick up some of the major accolades come awards season. Cooper and Gaga should take a bow.