A Star Is Born dragged my heart all around for months and months before I could even experience it. On paper, it sounded like a disaster: a vanity project from Bradley Cooper (who in addition to starring would be making his writer/director debut) featuring Lady Gaga (whose prior acting was mostly wooden, Golden Globe be damned) in the third remake of a film whose most recent iteration (the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) is among the most wretched blockbusters of all time. But then early word leaked that it was actually very good, and then not just very good but “one of the all-time greats,” per the earliest online review at Talkhouse (which came so early, in fact, it broke the studio-imposed review embargo and hours after publishing was taken down for a few days).
If it seemed like Cooper wrote that review himself under a pen name (“Cooper has somehow figured out how to marry the precision of a Hitchcock or Kubrick with the emotional generosity and psychologically probing nature of a Cassavetes or Kazan”), it was only momentarily—effusiveness prevailed in the early critical response from the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival and then the screenings at Toronto. The nearly unanimous word was that A Star Is Born was the real deal. (Spoilers ahead.)
But festivals are their own little worlds. And while I have no doubt about the crowd-pleasing potential of this version of A Star Is Born, I’m not quite sure that the movie amounts to excellence in cinematic achievement. There’s a lot to love, for sure: The first act is enthralling and well-paced and the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is so ineffable and palpable I’m not sure if there’s any word that does it justice beyond simply “love.”
It’s a thrill to be reminded of Gaga’s greatness—her ability to write a song so melodically generous that certain chord changes give your stomach that rollercoaster feeling, her titanium-coated pipes, the joy of performing that radiates from her the way happiness gives new mothers that glow. Though her silent facial acting would be too broad for Broadway (she really, really wants us to know she’s doing her job every second she’s onscreen), her line reads are as natural as they get. This is one of the most impressive leaps from pop stardom to a starring role in a major film, and I can’t wait to see where her inevitably busy career in movies takes her (she seems destined for a path that’s more Midler than Madonna).
I just wish she had more to do. Throughout the movie, Cooper’s grizzled, alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine mentors Gaga’s Ally by repeatedly reminding her of the importance of really saying something. After encountering her belting out “La Vie En Rose” in a drag bar, Jack waxes philosophical to her about the nature of expression:
“Talent comes everywhere. Everybody’s talented. Fuckin’ everybody in this bar is talented in one thing or another. But having something to say and the way you say it so people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. Unless you get out and you try to live, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. If there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here it’s to say something so people wanna hear it.”
That’s an ultimately funny snatch of dialogue, because this movie has little to say beyond emphasizing the importance of having something to say. Jack and Ally’s songs are fine pop in the way that A Star Is Born is a fine (albeit overly long) popcorn movie. But there is no indication of great insight in their lyrics (“I’m falling/In all the good times/I find myself longing for change/And in the bad times I fear myself” goes the pre-chorus bridge of their big duet “Shallow”), and there’s nothing in the film to color in our perception of what it’s like to be famous or a successful artist. There’s not even much here even to justify telling this story again with an update of how all of that has changed in the past 42 years (the suggestion that iPhones have turned everyone into independently operated paparazzi is obvious and abandoned anyway soon after it’s indicated).
The logic of Jack’s and Ally’s careers—his descending, hers ascending—don’t withstand much scrutiny. He’s a vaguely rootsy rock star who fills stadiums like... I don’t even know who? Some cross between Eddie Vedder and Jeff Tweedy? She gets her big break when a video of her performing onstage with him goes viral, but then a manager swoops in and her traditional singer-songwriter image (down to the framed cover of Carole King’s Tapestry album on her bedroom wall) is renovated for something glossier and more synth-based. Why? Wouldn’t they just at least try what seemed to be working, or shouldn’t they at least explain why aren’t? And what does Ally actually think about this. She seems to not have any position beyond not wanting to be blonde (so in apparent compromise, dyes her hair Vitamin C orange) and not wanting to have backup dancers. When asked point blank by her manager what she wants out of her career, she stammers. Her character never explicitly answers the question. (“I gotta talk to Jack,” is how she ends the conversation.)
Such a radical departure from her roots would make sense if Ally were nakedly ambitious, but in fact she has perpetual serenity of someone who claims that adulation is humbling. (This is perhaps the most prominent divergence between Ally and Gaga, such a scholar of celebrity that she named her first album The Fame and then its followup, The Fame Monster.) Through it all, Ally treats her success like it’s an opportunity she’s grateful for, not like something she’s entitled to as seemingly all stars eventually come around to feeling to some degree. Ally remains a total saint, and it’s Gaga’s considerable charm that saves her character from the ridiculousness of the script.
In turn glossy and intimate, thrilling and catchy, A Star Is Born is exquisitely prepared milquetoast. Its white characters pursue heteronormative ideals and exemplify many of contemporary American culture’s prevailing values (specifically, that achieving fame is the way to win life, even if you end up losing a lot). It is a movie with almost no surprises, aside from the bag of frozen peas Jack straps to Ally’s hand after she gets into a bar fight and the odd scene that plays like camp in a movie that people otherwise seem determined to take very seriously (I’m talking mostly about the “Hey, I just wanted to take another look at you” moment that the movie’s trailer immortalized). It’s mostly broad strokes, but too savvy (or maybe just too scared) to go full melodrama, aside from a scene in which Jack crashes Ally’s Grammy’s acceptance speech and ends up pissing himself on a national stage (Ally then gracefully covers his piss stain with her gown). That moment, by the way, would have gone exponentially more viral (I’m talking mega mega vi) than Ally getting on a stage and going, “Arraaghghagahjkgdlhagsghasdhdsfhashaaaaa!!!” which launches her career, but at that point so late in the picture, Cooper figures he has you hooked in emotionally and he’s mostly done with his surface-philosophizing about the process of capturing people’s attention.
For such a dynamic movie (one that in its superior first act feels as immersive of an experience as any rock musical has since The Rose), A Star Is Born is awfully resigned to its inevitabilities. This is in some ways thematically sound—the movie doesn’t judge or pathologize Ally for leaping into a relationship with a man who is clearly an addict because these things happen and people deal. Tale as old as time. But what kept me from appreciating this movie as a whole beyond some very good parts was its inability to practice what it preached and actually say something. Toward the end, Jack’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) gives Ally a rather Eurocentric and rhythm-averse bit of counseling after that thing you know is going to happen happens: “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes, that’s it.”
You could read this as A Star Is Born’s implicit acknowledgement of its narrative limitations, or an apology, even, but I saw it as an indictment.