Heartfelt performances from Lady Gaga and actor/director Bradley Cooper are enough to make Cooper’s directorial debut worthy of an encore. A Star is Born, the third remake of the original 1937 film of the same name, is another successful retelling of an apparently ageless story of fame, music, and love.
A Star is Born recounts the story of Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rock star struggling with hearing loss and addiction, and an aspiring singer/songwriter, Ally (Lady Gaga). Jackson, looking for a drink after a show, wanders into a drag bar to witness Ally performing on stage. After the performance, Jackson introduces himself to Ally and the two hit it off, talking about her future as a singer into the next morning.
The following afternoon, Jackson asks that Ally accompany him to his gig that night. Though she refuses at first, eventually, Ally agrees. Upon arriving at the venue, Jackson drags her onstage for a performance of “Shallow,” a song she had previously written and serenaded Jackson with the night before. From there, Ally’s career takes off as Jackson’s flounders, and the two are left to fight Jackson’s hearing loss, addiction, and plummeting career with their love for one another.
Cooper and Lady Gaga, each playing roles that have been played by three others (Fredric March, James Mason, and Kris Kristofferson for Cooper’s character, and Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand for Lady Gaga’s character) both give admirable performances, especially considering the stars that occupied those roles in the past. The movie leans heavily into the performances of its stars and support (including wonderful performances from Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, and, somewhat surprisingly, an appearance from Andrew Dice Clay) and is better for it.
While A Star is Born shines in performance, it falters elsewhere. Generally a well-edited movie, A Star is Born often struggles with the details. It’s never entirely clear how famous and successful Jackson Maine is at any point in the film. Jackson is said to be inspired by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, but other than the look and the sound, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
To nitpick, other small and relatively unimportant scenes fail to line up with reality. For instance, flying Ally to the venue of the show Jackson asked her to attend the night after they met seemed to create drama for the sake of drama. She leaves her home in Los Angeles in the late evening, takes a private jet and private car service, and arrives at a venue in an unnamed city as Jackson is performing. Later, Jackson allows Ally, a newcomer with no musical catalog of her own, to play an original song, solo, to close one of his shows. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief in a relatively realistic movie.
Worse, the music from A Star is Born is not particularly good. “Shallow” is poised to have a life of its own outside the movie, but the tracklist is otherwise devoid of hits. This is peculiar, considering the movie’s gradual genre shift from Jackson’s country rock to Ally’s pop. The lack of pop hits may have been a deliberate choice, however unlikely that may seem, as the movie tries to make a statement about the lack of artistic integrity seen in modern pop music. This flies in the face of Lady Gaga’s own career and popular consensus in this country. Philosophy aside, pop music means more to the U.S. than country rock by a considerable margin.
Gripes aside, A Star is Born is good. The music, details, and some themes are clumsily handled, but a particularly masterfully shot and directed scene between Elliot and Cooper will serve as my main takeaway from the film. In this case, music is the MacGuffin to a story about interpersonal relationships and the fallout that addiction has on those relationships. Audiences deemed it worthy of their time in 1937, 1954, and 1976, and that rings true again in 2018.