Review: A Star Is Born

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Last week, Bradley Cooper’s acclaimed remake of A Star Is Born arrived in theatres. The actor directs and stars as washed-up musician Jackson Maine alongside Lady Gaga, who makes a phenomenal debut performance as Ally, an aspiring singer-songwriter. This is the fourth A Star Is Born; the original was released in 1937, with two other remakes debuting in 1954 and 1976.

The story is a modern twist on an old tale — Jackson Maine is a rockstar on the precipice of chaos, a hard drinker and a drug abuser. He’s grown passive to his own dehumanization as a beloved celebrity, so he cloaks himself in the isolation of fame. Ally is a waitress whose long-abandoned musical aspirations are echoed for a few hours every night when she performs at a local drag bar. Desperate for a drink after a show one night, Jack stumbles into the bar just as Ally’s about to begin her performance. They’re fascinated by each other; Ally in polite shock that this famous musician has taken an interest in her, and Jack by Ally’s quiet resignation that she’ll never make it in the music industry — he thinks she’s extraordinary.

Watching these two characters fall in love under such remarkable circumstances gives the first half of the film a whirlwind magic. Cooper and Gaga are so unexpectedly lovely together, creating an intimacy between two souls who find something in each other that makes up for whatever they were missing in themselves. This codependency heightens the film’s emotional stakes, making it especially disappointing when the story starts to confuse melodrama for authentic feeling.

The electricity that the filmmakers worked so hard to create in the first act finds itself displaced in the second. Ally’s career starts to take off with Jack’s coaxing, but her rise to stardom coincides with his worsening drinking habit. What are you supposed to do when you love someone who can’t help themselves? Jack fears that he can’t save Ally from the machine of celebrity and image, and Ally desperately wants Jack to overcome his alcoholism and drug abuse.

The electricity that the filmmakers worked so hard to create in the first act finds itself displaced in the second.

But the film doesn’t work hard enough to convince the audience that Ally’s career is worth caring about, which makes for a disengaging story that had an enrapturing start. The intensity built by their budding relationship isn’t sufficiently sustained when the romance starts to unravel, leaving a void that never quite seems to fill itself. A better movie would have been able to capture the intensity of a sudden rise to stardom or a downward spiral into addiction just as competently as it captures its romance. That’s where A Star Is Born falls short.

Part of this is because the second act approaches Ally’s career only in the context of her relationship with Jack; Jack watches her from the side stage when she performs on Saturday Night Live, Jack accidentally humiliates her at the Grammy’s, Jack disapproves of her racy lyrics and backup dancers and bright outfits. The movie’s strange, half-baked critique of pop music is also distracting because it doesn’t really seem to serve Ally any purpose — it just cheapens her artistry in Jack’s eyes. This is all a shame because Gaga is such a gifted actress, and I wish she’d had as much to work with during the second half of the movie as she did in the first.

I’ve praised Gaga, so now I have to give credit where credit is due. A Star Is Born brings out Bradley Cooper’s best, most convincing performance to date. Until now, Cooper hasn’t had a specific performance that made him a stand out among his peers; he’s always been a good actor, but he proves his greatness with Jackson Maine. He also manages to make this transformation into a grizzled rockstar while pulling double duty as the director, making the rare big-budget studio film that radiates warmth and intimacy. Hats off to him and his magnificent salt and pepper beard.

Though A Star Is Born’s shortcomings were blatant to me, the film still has its fair share of great moments, many of them musical. The live performances are especially exhilarating, and they’re even more impressive for having been filmed at festivals around the world with real crowds. The music, which is a mix of original songs and covers, spans across several genres. Standouts from the soundtrack (besides “Shallow”) are Gaga’s cover of “La Vie En Rose”, a ballad called “Is That Alright?” and one of Cooper’s solos, “Maybe It’s Time”. It’s often in these musical numbers that the story finds some emotional footing, but it’s unfortunately not enough.

The live performances are especially exhilarating, and they’re even more impressive for having been filmed at festivals around the world with real crowds.

A Star Is Born has a little bit of everything: love, music, tragedy, laughter, loneliness. It’s unfortunate that such a compelling story with a rock solid formula couldn’t build the emotional resonance it teased at the start. At the very least, the first 45 minutes are thrilling, and though the characters are eventually diluted by a weak script, Cooper and Gaga have crafted one of this year’s strongest romantic dynamics. It’s not entirely satisfying, but it’ll do.

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