There’s an interesting quandary at the center of “A Star Is Born,” or at least in the latest interpretation of this classic Hollywood yarn: Who do we relate to, identify with, in this story of star-crossed career paths -- the impressionable young ingenue, or the seasoned veteran?
Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut makes a convincing case for both, thanks not only to music that bolsters the credibility of both rugged singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) and aspiring pop star Ally (Lady Gaga), but motivations that seem to exist both within the actors performing them, and the careers those performers have developed for themselves outside the actual narrative. Either way, Cooper’s film is a remarkable, addictive piece of Hollywood myth-making that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and in the loudest theater possible.
Cooper (“American Sniper”) plays Jackson, a grizzled musician with as many poetic insights about art as he does addictions. One night after a gig, he wanders into a drag bar for a cocktail where he stumbles across Ally (Gaga), a waitress who’s all but given up on the possibility of stardom outside of singing “La Vie En Rose” for the local queens. He takes an immediate shine to her -- and her talent -- and the two quickly slide into a tender courtship, him pulling her onstage to sing duets in front of thousands of fans, and her pulling him into bed, and later, the studio to collaborate. Despite Ally’s insistence she won’t enable his addictions, his self-destructive behavior continues to guide his life and derail his career, even as she finds a manager (Rafi Gavron, “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and acquiesces to the demands of pop stardom --to enormous success, but at the expense of a few of the qualities Jackson first fell in love with.
But as their personal and professional relationships fall into relief with one another, they’re forced to reflect on the time they have shared, and make some difficult decisions about what sort of future each wants -- both as musicians and as lovers.
It sounds like a criticism to say that there aren’t many surprises in “A Star Is Born,” but the familiarity of this particular kind of love story -- with or without that title -- practically demands a boilerplate approach, and there’s something wonderfully reassuring about the way its rhythms unfold. At the same time, the successful execution of that formula requires great performances, and this film delivers like gangbusters with Cooper and Gaga bringing the characters’ talent and chemistry to vibrant life.
Gaga has some truly spectacular instincts as an actress -- her early scenes, when Ally is the most “ordinary,” are just riveting to watch, and she perfectly plays against Cooper’s confounded joy as Jackson, discovering a creative (and romantic) inspiration he’d long thought extinguished. The music further communicates their respective personalities and bolsters the legitimacy of his established -- and her ascendant -- success, conveying their artistic compatibility but also the stark differences between what they want and what they have to offer (not to mention their ages and levels of experience).
There is a sort of curious footnote to the movie, however, where Gaga is the greater authority than Cooper: She knows and has intimately experienced the rise, and the obstacles to modern pop stardom, and she comes from a generation where “selling out,” so to speak, is no longer a crime against art, and, in fact, is seemingly something to aspire to. (Certainly, she has not compromised herself in her own career, but she has a more immediate relationship with those pitfalls and perhaps a more comfortable relationship with the prospect of going big, broad, and commercial.)
It makes her performance more sympathetic to some of the less desirable, or maybe respectable, tasks that Ally eventually must take on, or chooses to take on; Ally is a born songwriter and singer, but the music she ends up making barely resembles what first creatively drives her, which isn’t “bad” (well, some of it is) but it creates this very interesting meta-commentary on the paths of these two artists and the kinds of art they create. Does a musician need to bear the emotional weight of their life experiences with every song they write? In an age where everything is sold, is it really a compromise for her to perform a song about how good her man looks in his jeans, if she got to write it herself? The movie doesn’t answer, but it’s an ongoing dialogue the movie has as these characters shift their power positions in the relationship, and in their careers.
As a director, Cooper maintains a remarkably equitable balance between the theatricality of this story and what might approximate a sense of “realism." More than anything else, however, Cooper creates a feeling in his characters and their journeys that feels absolutely right (for the story) and emotionally believable. In examining Jackson’s alcoholism, he treats the subject (forgive the pun) soberly, showcasing the character’s self-awareness and his shame in destroying beautiful moments and opportunities for the people he loves. In following Ally’s transformation, he does not judge the changes that she makes -- even when they seem to violate the core of who she is -- and why she felt like she couldn’t succeed before she met Jackson.
Ultimately just a magical, musical experience -- romantic and tragic and irresistibly propulsive -- “A Star Is Born” is certainly the kind of movie that seems likely to win awards as the end of the year approaches, but it carries the increasingly rare distinction of being one that feels like it actually and honestly earns the accolades it receives.
Seasoned musician Jackson Maine discovers -- and falls in love with -- struggling artist Ally. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally's career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons. Read More