I really dig the idea of A Star Is Born being this property that Hollywood remakes every few decades. Not just because it’s telling a story that is basically guaranteed to have at least some form of relevancy no matter the time period, but because it gives you an idea of how the era informs the storytelling and the aesthetics. On the off chance you didn’t already know, A Star Is Born first came on the scene (as long as you’re not counting 1932’s What Price Hollywood?) as a 1937 William Wellman picture starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, which was remade into the 1954 George Cukor film starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and later remade again by Frank Pierson in 1972, which starred Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand.
Now, we have Bradley Cooper coming in as producer, director, co-writer, and star. He plays rock star, Jackson Maine, a man who not only suffers from chronic tinnitus, he also has a bad drinking problem. However, one night after a show, and in search for a drink, he makes his way to a bar where he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) performing. He immediately recognizes her potential, and helps getting her the attention she deserves. Over time, a romance ensues as she is thrown into near instant stardom. However, Jackson’s self-destructive tendencies and falling popularity begins to make things complicated, yada, yada, yada, you should know how this goes by now.
Cooper’s film draws more from the ‘72 version than the others, and the biggest change he and co-writers, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, made is to alter the overall framing so that it centers more on Jackson than it does on Ally. He’s the one with the most agency, he drives things forward, he’s the emotional center. Interesting choice, considering it makes the self-insert fantasy character into a supporting role, but it is the closest you’ll come to something new here. The change also makes the whole proceedings really feel like a classic example of a vanity project for Cooper, but I wouldn’t say that’s inherently a bad thing. The one big surprise here is that he does manage to pull it off.
Granted, he is able to pull it off because he surrounds himself with excellent talent that an relatively unknown filmmaker would have never been afforded, but at least it all adds up to a film that is beautifully made and elegantly performed. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is intimate and urgent, vibrant and gritty, and it’s able to catch every little movement and tick from the actors’ faces with clarity and purpose. And as expected, the music is great. They were mostly written as a collaboration between Gaga, Cooper, and Lukas Nelson, and their hard work pays off. The songs are very emotionally driven, they’re informed by character, and they make you want to get the soundtrack as soon as you leave the theater.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and it’s surprisingly in the supporting cast where it shines the most. That’s not to say Cooper and Gaga aren’t great, especially together, they are, but their beats are the most overt and showy, by the very nature of the material. What I enjoyed the most was seeing folks like Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, and Anthony Ramos bring in these understated, naturalistic, yet emotionally resonant performances, which brought a good balance to the more classically melodramatic central storyline. There’s never a moment that feels false, and it’s because of the performances.
If there’s anything I could pick at, it’s that the script doesn’t offer the kind of nuance that the performances and direction implied. Since Ally is more of a supporting role, we don’t get to know too much about her as an individual aside from the broad strokes of an artist hoping to break through. We get brief glimpses of her home life, but we don’t spend much time to allow the audience to fully understand her experiences. Though, the same could also be said of Jackson, who is constantly talking about who he is and where he comes from rather than showing. The film also struggles in properly showing the passage of time in a cohesive way since things everything Ally goes through seems to happen one right after the other, which could’ve been intentional in contrast with Jackson’s career, but it doesn’t fully work.
I definitely wouldn’t call A Star Is Born a perfect film, or even one of the year’s best, but it is a damn good film that manages to show how you can take something that’s been done a million times before, and still tell it in a way that is just as emotionally powerful as it was the first time it was told. It’s not quite as great as the ‘37 or ‘54 version, but it’s certainly better than the ‘72 film. Bradley Cooper shows that he is a more than capable director, and his chemistry with Lady Gaga is terrific. I don’t think the film says or does anything particularly interesting or new or challenging, but it does sweep you off on this romance in a way that is so effective you don’t really mind it. It’s like comfort food. You know exactly what to expect, but that doesn’t make the experience any less enjoyable.