A Star is Born

(Cooper, 2018)

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This review contains minor spoilers for A Star Is Born.

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the latest in a long line of adaptations that began with the original 1937 version of A Star Is Born starring Janet Gaynor. Cooper has revived the classic tale of two star-crossed musicians, this time with Lady Gaga and himself in the leading roles. Gaga and Cooper provide all the vocals for the film’s hour-long soundtrack, which was written by the Gaga and Lukas Nelson, country crooner and son of Willie Nelson. Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay also star in supporting roles.

Cooper’s iteration of A Star Is Born follows an aspiring musician named Ally (Gaga) who meets and falls in love with country rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper). Maine encourages Ally to break out of her shell and pursue a music career, but their relationship begins to sour as Ally’s rising success and Maine’s substance abuse collide. Though not a perfect film, A Star Is Born is a significant one. It marks Bradley Cooper’s first go-around as a director and Lady Gaga’s first serious film role (she had small roles in Machete Kills and Muppets Most Wanted). There’s a delicious, indulgent quality to A Star Is Born that makes it easy to watch, but difficult to digest. It’s familiar story combined with a classic Hollywood style of storytelling, A Star Is Born draws from the past with enormous success, packing fierce, emotional punches along the way. A narrative of love, talent, heartbreak and stardom: a tale as old as Hollywood itself. These elements, though recognizable, are not what filled theaters, or what gave Cooper his nod from the critics. In fact, the film’s lack of originality and inability to take the leap into modernity is exactly what holds it (and its lead character) back.

Lady Gaga shines as Ally, a young waitress working, singing, and still dreaming. It’s not just that Gaga’s voice that works, booming with every oh-ohohoh, but also her unmasked, wonderfully raw portrayal of the aspiring artist. Ally radiates with talent, but faces obstacles as superifically real as agents telling her talent doesn’t matter when her nose is so big. It’s such a ridiculous thing to nitpick when you hear her voice in the trailer, but it’s something Gaga herself faced when entering the industry. It’s what Barbra Streisand was told years before she starred in the 1976 version of the same film. And the film’s meta-parallels to its female talent continue throughout, despite taking odd turns near the film’s end.

Whereas Gaga’s own history makes her costume-free struggle feel both vulnerable and delightful at the beginning of the film, her trajectory in the second half is a bit troubling. There are two back-to-back scenes early on in the film that embody what is best about the film, while also foreshadowing its strange second half. After polishing off a bottle a gin in the back of his car after a gig, Cooper’s Jackson Maine decides that he needs more. He tells his driver to go to a bar, any bar, so he can get his fix. Where he lands just happens to be the Hollywood drag bar where Ally is singing that same night. Jackson fixes himself at the bar with another drink in hand, but unexpectedly finds himself intoxicated by a roaring rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” Entranced from the first note, Jackson watches as Ally sashays her way off the stage, through the crowd, until she is lying down on the bar in front of him. Then the moment from the trailer: her eyes, which had not yet met his, finally turn toward him. All other people fade away as the frame is taken up only by the intensity of that first look. She lifts a pasted eyebrow at him, gets up, and returns to the stage. The smiles, the singing, and the spark of their connection is believable, palpable, and thrilling to watch. This is where the movie thrives: the combined talent of its actors, sharing the screen, telling equally as important stories.

After the show, Jackson makes his way backstage to talk with Ally. He peels off her eyebrows, in an attempt to see the real her. Though the sentiment is sweet in the moment, within the greater context of the film it is strangely judgemental. Lady Gaga built her career on extravagance. She was known for her outrageous costumes, daring music videos, and dynamic pop-presence. Her rise to worldwide stardom has been defined largely by her ability to manipulate her image. Yet in the second half of A Star Is Born, the same type of trajectory that Gaga pursued in real life is criticized with harsh, judging eyes. Her foray into the pop-diva world becomes the impotis for Maine’s exacerbated alcohol addiction and overall downward spiral. In spite of her success, Maine can only see the artifice of Ally’s performance. Director Cooper makes it apparent that Ally has “sold out”, and begs that the audience to sympathize with Maine’s disappointment. It seems Cooper wants us to believe that Ally’s success isn’t truly a success because she is a pop singer rather than a revered singer-songwriter. This criticism of pop music, and the music industry as a whole, is never resolved in the film. Cooper gives the audience no solution or cure for what he clearly sees as the music industry’s “disease”. His critique ultimately feels harsh and out of touch, especially considering Gaga’s real life career. How strange then, that Gaga is the actress to tell this tale.

If there is one other thing to note in these scenes, it is the shift in power. When Ally sings, she commands our attention, as well as Maine’s. But backstage, Maine has all the power. He strips her of her face, peeling off her eyebrows, revealing his own taste for beauty. “There you are,” he says, as if she wasn’t just another version of herself on stage. As Ally pursues the soulless life of pop stardom, she becomes merely a vehicle for Maine’s pain, a representation of his own demons rather than her ambition. Her star continues to rise, but the burn-out of Jackson Maine is too bright. Sure, Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but the beginning of A Star Is Born proves that there is something special in its pairing of Cooper and Gaga together. Why strip it away?

A Star Is Born is likely to strike a chord with wide audiences and Academy voters thanks to its well-acted melodrama and “Old Hollywood” feel, but it may leave some with a bitter taste in their mouth as they recognize the dated and unsettling ideologies that permeate the film. If you can stomach those elements, maybe this film will be worth your time. But if not, the trailer and soundtrack are good enough on their own. ★★★

 
Emily Figueroa