Synopsis: Boy (Bradley Cooper) meets girl (Lady Gaga). Thing is, boy is a big time rockstar and girl is a wannabe singer-songwriter. Boy gives girl her big break, and her star rises while his dims.
1. There is something very old-fashioned about A Star Is Born, both for good and for ill. Not only is it a stealth musical, but it relies on star power (as is fitting) to carry much of it. It is a mainstream crowd-pleaser of the sort I’m contractually obligated to say “they just don’t make these days”, and this element of old-Hollywoodism (almost certainly due to its status as a THIRD remake) is evoked both in the classical way it hits its high notes and in the more leaden moments where it stumbles into cliché. Don’t get me wrong here, A Star Is Born is a good movie, possibly a very good movie, but the tendency to take the easier storytelling path a little too often prevents it from being a great one.
2. Still, what an auspicious debut this is for star and director Bradley Cooper. It’s not perfect – Cooper overuses (a) those tight close-ups on faces, (b) the docu-realistic handheld camera (stop moving your camera, Brad. Stop. Lock it down.) and (c) the word ‘fuck’ (there’s something I thought I’d never say). He does, however, have a real ability to direct scenes of musical performance, which of course is more than handy in a film like this. The best scenes in A Star Is Born are the musical ones, and there is none better than the climactic scene where Lady Gaga’s Ally joins Cooper’s Jackson Maine onstage to perform her song ‘Shallow’. Cleverly, it pulls a trick from Jonathan Demme’s superlative concert film Stop Making Sense, and focuses the camera entirely on the singers, turning the titular star-making moment into an intimate duet between Maine and Ally, shrouding everyone else in darkness. The song itself is aces (what else did we expect from the person who wrote ‘Joanne’?), the direction assured, and Gaga is, well … let’s talk about it in paragraph 3. Cooper generally directs A Star Is Born in a more naturalistic, down-to-earth style, but this is the moment where the movie pulls out all the stops and goes for broke, to really make the audience’s hairs stand as they witness Ally’s rapid ascent to the top. It is one of the best scenes of the year.
2a. This is embarrassing to say, because it comes dangerously close to pop psychology, but there is a single shot in this movie that made me think – “Bradley Cooper is a man who has been in love.” It’s a simple shot – Lady Gaga’s face, first in profile, lit from above in warm violet, and then she turns to the camera and smiles. The way Cooper frames it leaves me in no doubt that he has been smitten before, because of how easily he gets the audience to fall in love with Lady Gaga.
3. As for Gaga, she’s great, but I cannot help but wonder if the strength of her performance is boosted by all the scenes of her performing and singing. So much of the effectiveness of her acting comes from how well she sells the musical scenes – but considering she’s only one of the biggest pop stars in the world, shouldn’t this be taken as a given? I do not want to undersell how good she is here, especially in ‘Shallow’, where she runs through about seven different emotions in the course of the song. The erstwhile Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta deserves every single accolade she is getting for this movie and then some, but the true test of her acting career will come in her next role, which presumably will not allow her to use the voice that sang ‘Million Reasons’ to pack an emotional punch. Still, one can hardly begrudge an actor for using their entire arsenal of tricks, and if you have a weapon at your disposal like that voice, you might as well use it.
4. No such doubts exist for Bradley Cooper, who might give his best ever performance in A Star Is Born. Jackson Maine is, if we’re being honest, less of a character than a greatest-hits compilation of rockstar tropes (troubled, charming, alcoholic, and so on), but Cooper breathes life into what could have been a stale role. As any good director and supporting actor should, he leaves the fireworks to his lead actress, but that perversely makes Cooper’s almost mumblecore performance of Maine even more impressive. One example – Cooper’s head is perennially tilted down in the film, conveying both the power of Maine’s alcoholism and the world-weariness of a man who lost his passion for his art years ago going through the motions because he feels he has to do so. A simple and effective choice in a performance that is chock-full of them.
5. Both actors also have explosive chemistry, one that feels real and unforced. The scenes where Maine and Ally meet and bond over the course of a single night are some of the best in the film, anchored in the solid foundation of the easy attraction that is formed between the two. In general, the first half is clearly better than the second, crackling with ramshackle charm of two kindred spirits delighting in each other’s company. I could frankly have just watched an entire musical-themed remake of Before Sunrise with these two.
6. A big fat UGH to the subplot (and character) of the manager / AOR guy. Firstly, the film seems to set up a false dichotomy between Maine’s ‘authentic’ roots-rock and the fakeness of pop music, which is kind of ironic considering that the lead actress has a body of work that conclusively proves it is more than possible to arouse genuine emotions through slickly overproduced dance-pop. I mea, is there anyone left in this world who has not fallen prey to the powers of ‘Bad Romance’? The manager character is also a shoehorned antagonist where one did not need to exist, an unnecessary crystallisation of Maine’s self-destructive tendencies and Ally’s hunger for fame. If these flaws had been more organically integrated into the conflict of the screenplay, it would have made for a far stronger movie, one about two people locked in each other’s orbit in a constant state of attraction and repulsion. A less crowd-pleasing experience? Possibly, but almost certainly a more interesting one.
7. There were three women in the cinema I was in who literally pulled out their phones to record (i) Gaga’s first appearance in the film, (ii) the first duet of ‘Shallow’ and (iii) the final song. I say this not to shame (but in all honesty though, WTF guys. Like, seriously. Beyond being terrible manners, that was an actual honest-to-god crime), but to point out the film’s central irony – our ‘unknown musical talent’ might be the biggest pop star in the world (give or take one Taylor Swift), to the extent that her fans are attending this movie simply to watch her sing. It is near unavoidable to watch this movie without thinking of it as the Lady Gaga story. All three Gaga musical ‘eras’ are represented – big-band chanteuse, dance-pop diva and country-rock crooner. Gaga’s status as a queer ally and icon is alluded to via the presence of Rupaul’s Drag Race alumni Shangela and Willam. Ally is told she is too ugly to make it, which has always been an unfortunate part of the discourse surrounding Lady Gaga.
As such, this film and it’s meta-narrative are almost impossible to untangle, and maybe it’s best not to bother even trying, especially when the narrative it sells is so seductive. Yes, the entertainment industry is shallow and venal, but sometimes, it finds a talent so unique that it breaks through any mould they try to impose on her. Besides, is commodifying yourself such a huge price to pay when the reward is the chance to express yourself to the roar of a loving crowd? This is a film that cleverly plays both sides of the debate between art and commerce, and maybe it might have been better served choosing a side of the fence. Still, there is no denying its and its star’s appeal to all demographics, from the rubes in the cheap seats to the snobs in the royal boxes. If A Star Is Born is irresistible, it is because Lady Gaga is irresistible, the luminous light in the centre of a career that now spans across large swathes of popular culture. The film’s success is her success, and after watching her cry and belt her way through the final performance (in tight close-up, naturally), it is difficult to begrudge her any of it.
Never before has her name felt more like an honorific. All hail Lady Gaga, the Queen of Pop.