A Star Is Born, remade yet again. Its fourth incarnation since 1937. What possible good could come of yet another manifestation of this story of stardom and love gained, lost, and championed? The short answer: almost every possible kind of good. Director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper brings a no-nonsense sensibility to this 81-year-old story, infusing it with a sharp balance between lively esprit and the “pain of being a man,” to quote Samuel Johnson.
Cooper embodies this pain in every frame he stalks through and with every note he sings as singer-songwriter Jackson Maine, a lost soul drowning in a sea of loneliness and self-harm. Years of putting himself through the wringer of life on the road have made him seek solace in drugs and alcohol, downing pills and straight shots before, during, and after every show. His tinnitus is getting worse with every performance, and he won’t listen to his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), who advises him to use hearing-saving in-ear monitors.
Working unfettered is the only way Jackson can properly feel and perform his music, and what a wonder it is to watch him do so, as Cooper (who also plays and sings) sinks Jackson so deeply into each strummed chord and soaring solo. He also embodies the shuffling, downtrodden spirit Jackson wears like a cowboy duster, feebly glinting into the sun for any kind of respite from the pressures of his performing life. Make no mistake: Bradley Cooper is Jackson Maine, with no traces of any of the boyish impishness we’ve come to expect from him. As soon as the lights go down and the first strains of his music ram themselves out of the theater speakers, he is a painting in human form we’re meant to behold and let wash over us.
Wisely, he steps aside to let Ally (Stefani Germanotta, known professionally as Lady Gaga) whirl him away with her showstopping voice and stage presence at a local dive bar. He also sees in her the spark which drove him to make his destined passion manifest, and he quickly becomes willing to do anything to feed and protect that spark in her. Gaga practically flies off the screen with charisma and charm, calling upon her own personal years as one of the world’s most electrifying entertainers to help fill Ally’s shoes. It’s telling that Gaga is not credited by her real name, lending A Star is Born her real stardom and sheen while forging a relatable, lovable character. She makes Ally magnetic and whole, playing the role of a woman trying hard to keep her human side intact while bounding through the impossibilities of fame and fortune.
From this chance meeting at a bar – he’s there just to drink among the locals, she’s there as a featured cabaret-style performer – this kinship blossoms into a working partnership, transitioning to true love along the way. She seems to be the only entity capable of quieting his noisy heart and mind; he’s exactly the push she needs to get her creative fires stoked and roiling, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter that their stars are traveling in opposite directions, with hers never stopping on its stratospheric rise, which brings us to the crux of the story: dependency.
These two are like a carefully-layered tiramisu; one ingredient out of whack or balance, and the whole thing falls apart. And in today’s music industry, it doesn’t take much for it to fall apart. If it’s not drugs and alcohol Jackson needs, it’s the rope tethering him to this world which Ally represents to him; she is color, she is vibrance, she is life. In turn, Ally needs his own peculiar light he brings, a sense of adventure and wonder he’s able to show her through travels and music. Don’t get the idea that she’s using him for his established connections or that he’s using her to stay relevant; they are two halves of a heart, placid bedrocks amidst tumult.
In his directorial debut, Cooper has crafted an engrossing, shattering performance-driven film which doesn’t take its pieces for granted. Instead, we stay rooted in Ally and Jackson’s personal and musical journey together. Fantastic songs propel the story while at the same time making us appreciate musical genesis and inspiration. However, the focus is on Jackson and Ally blazing their own trail, finding ways through a mournful existence to bring out the best in each other. It’s not meant to last forever; throughout, Cooper drops foreboding hints through prop work, set design, and ominous dialogue exchanges. Even with all of this, the combining of Cooper and Gaga – a veteran of many films and TV shows, and a woman who’s worked her ass off to establish herself as a pop culture icon – leads to solid fireworks and grand emotion, kept rooted and grounded amid the fairytales of stardom.