Reviewed on October 4, 2018
Late in A Star Is Born, a character says to Lady Gaga’s singer-songwriter Ally that music tells the same story again and again, regardless of genre or singer. “The only thing an artist can offer is how they see those notes,” he says.
In other words, the stories we tell through art are always getting back to the same basic truths about ourselves. What makes the things we listen to, look at, watch, or read stand apart is in the interpretation.
It’s a fitting mission statement for director and star Bradley Cooper’s movie — not least because, in a literal sense, A Star Is Born is one of Hollywood’s most remade big-screen fables, with a version for nearly every generation.
A Star Is Born…and reborn
Cooper’s film marks the fourth iteration of the classic tale of fame and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of people caught up in it. The first version of A Star Is Born debuted in 1937, barely 40 years after the creation of cinema itself. The film starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.
It was revisited again in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and then again in 1976, this time starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The 2018 incarnation brings us Gaga and Cooper in the lead roles.
The details vary between remakes, but the basic story is the same: An alcoholic performer (an actor in the 1937 and 1954 versions, a singer in the 1976 and 2018 versions) in the twilight of his career discovers a young ingenue and helps her achieve success. At the same time, the two fall in love.
As she rises to fame, the male lover/mentor spirals downward into self-destruction. At the core of the story is an examination of the personal sacrifices required to stay in the limelight — the balance of public figure and private life (and private demons), and the heavy toll it takes.
The word remake, though, brings to mind a lack of originality, the idea that a filmmaker or a studio is returning to a familiar well because they know it works. That’s not what Cooper’s trying to do here. A more appropriate word to describe A Star Is Born might be “cover.”
Like all movies, each new version of A Star Is Born tells its audience something about the time it’s made in, and the person making it. It’s particularly easy to notice timely themes and the filmmaker’s voice here, because we can tell the difference between versions. Like a good cover of a song, the beats don’t change, but the artist’s take on them does.
That take, in this case, goes beyond the tales of jealousy, alcoholism, and enablement that previous versions of A Star Is Born have covered. Cooper’s version is about the way industry interferes with art. It’s also about the struggle of an artist to stay true to themselves in the face of commercialization.
One star rises, another fades
The waning male star this time around is Cooper’s Jackson Maine, an alcoholic roots-rock star who’s got musical chops, but needs drinks and pills to get through a show, and is losing his hearing to boot.
One night after a show, Jackson wanders into a drag bar where he meets Ally (Gaga, almost unrecognizable without her outrageous costumes and stylized makeup). She’s bold, sensitive, and true to herself. Jackson is immediately smitten, and also recognizes her raw talent.
After Jackson convinces Ally to sing with him onstage, she becomes an overnight success, while Jackson’s substance abuse problems hinder his career.
At the same time, Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron) is moving her away from the stripped-down naturalism that helped her explode, and towards a more polished — but empty — pop star image.
Jackson’s disappointment at watching the woman he loves slowly have her artistic identity co-opted further drives a wedge between them.
The film’s first hour is its strongest, focusing mainly on powerhouse musical performances, which cinematographer Matthew Libatique — a frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator — shoots with an impressive sense of intimacy.
Cooper and Gaga perform the songs themselves, and there are moments where A Star Is Born stops being a drama and becomes simply a fantastic concert film.
The two stars have great chemistry together, and watching the immediate effect their characters have on each other is a delight.
The second half of the film, however, falters and drags some. In part, this is because there are fewer musical performances to liven things up. It’s also because that reduction in momentum highlights issues with the movie’s storytelling.
Movies about the full life cycle of a relationship risk taking on a plodding, procedural nature, because there’s not a stated end goal for the plot. The relationship itself, not the story it’s part of, becomes the arc. A Star Is Born shows signs of falling into this trap, but just barely manages to avoid falling into it entirely.
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
The way the film avoids this fate is through its thematic resonance. We’re not just witnessing an artist’s rise, or another artist’s fall. A Star Is Born is an analogy for the way Cooper perceives our increasingly marketing- and image-driven culture, and how it robs artists of their authentic voice.
Jackson is older than Ally, and the music he makes has an older, classic-rock sound to it. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner notes in her great New York Times profile, the character of Jackson is a throwback to the actors, filmmakers, and other artists Cooper himself admires, who had the luxury of working during a period that allowed them creative freedom apart from the demands of bankability.
The younger Ally starts from the same place of naturalism, but is quickly forced by others to sacrifice that for a shinier, more image-conscious approach.
She represents the change from a time when artists dictated their own art to a time when artistic output has become directed by studio heads, managers, and record executives who know how to sell art, but not what art really is.
Unlike previous versions of A Star Is Born, Jackson’s demise (though it is self-orchestrated) doesn’t come about only through vice and envy. It’s just as much because he represents an increasingly obsolete approach to art.
He’s the past. Ally is the future.
Amid the great music and love story, that approach gives this version of A Star Is Born a more bitter melody than its predecessors. If previous versions of the film asked what the price of fame was, Cooper’s version has an answer: authenticity.
By using his first-ever outing as a director to make this film, Cooper has made a strong statement about his own experiences as an artist, and it’s kind of a bleak one. He may have gotten into the entertainment industry to express himself through his work, but it turns out artistic freedom can only go as far as the folks who hold the purse strings will let it.
A worthwhile drama with impressive acting and musical performances, A Star Is Born proves this frequently revisited tale still has relevance and room for reinterpretation.