"A Star is Born" - Bradley Cooper (2018)

The story of A Star is Born is a classic Hollywood fable that has been retold several times and never fails to charm its audiences.  It concerns the romantic relationship between two people headed in different directions – an eager young woman who seeks to make a name for herself in the media and an established male star whose career has already crested.  One is on the way up, and the other will soon be headed down. 

The first version of this story was George Cukor’s drama What Price Hollywood? (1932), and the subsequent versions were all musicals:
  • A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March,
  • A Star Is Born (1954), directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Garland and James Mason,
  • A Star Is Born (1976), directed by Frank Pierson and starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and
  • A Star Is Born (2018), directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.
The subject of this review is the last of this classic tale’s four reincarnations – it has been a huge hit, both with critics and at the box office, and it is likely to secure several Oscar nominations [1,2,3,4].  Its popularity is undoubtedly enhanced on this occasion by the fact that for this film the cultural medium of interest in the story is popular music.  And the film’s major virtue is its renderings of pop songs sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. 

In particular, Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), who is known for her provocative, over-the-top performances, is here in her first starring role very realistic and under control.  It is her emotive and convincing performance, both on the musical stage and off, that is the key to the film’s success.  Bradley Cooper, who is a well-known actor here directing his first film, is also convincing and effective as the established but troubled country/rock star Jackson Maine who is attracted to the up-and-coming singer Ally played by Lady Gaga.  However, despite the film’s musical virtues, there are some deficiencies in other areas that detract from one’s overall enjoyment.

Note that we might expect a film of this nature to have a dual narrative focus – one narrative thread concentrating on the external, professional aspects of the two singers and another thread of relatively equal weight devoted to the dynamics of their personal relationship.  However, here in this film, though those two narrative threads exist, the balance between the two is very unequal, and most of the screen time is devoted to the relationship thread.  We only learn about what is going on in the external thread from incidental material provided in the relationship thread.  This gives the film a more intensely emotional flavour throughout.

We might see the story of A Star is Born as passing through four stages characterizing the dynamics of the romantic relationship between the two singers. 
1.  Jackson Meets Ally
In the beginning Jackson (“Jack”) Maine (played by Bradley Cooper) is shown performing before a massive and adoring audience.  Afterwards he goes out looking for a place to have a drink and winds up wandering into a bar that is having its drag queen performance night.  Among those singing songs there is a young woman Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), who is not gay but is allowed to perform there if she dons drag-queen makeup.  When Jack hears Ally’s dramatic rendition of “La Vie en Rose”, he is stunned by her talent and seeks to get to know her.  He invites to come to his next show, and when she comes backstage, he invites her out on stage to sing with him before his audience.  Afterwards, he invites her to join him on his next tour.  Ally is thrilled to be with such a famous star.

2.  Ally’s Career Blooms
On the tour, Jack encourages Ally to sing her own compositions, which he sees come from her  heart.  Soon Ally is drawing attention on her own as a talented country singer.  Also during this period, the relationship between Ally and Jack flowers, and they become a romantic couple.  But we also see that Jack is a serious alcoholic and drug addict.  Much of the time he is shown staggering around in an inebriated state.  Because she adores Jack, Ally puts up with his drunken phases, but she is increasingly alarmed.

3.  Divergences
As Ally’s singing attracts more and more attention, she draws the interest of a record producer, Rez (Rafi Gavron), who offers her a recording contract but wants to shift her focus away from country music to glam electro-pop.  Jack reluctantly accepts this development but fears Ally will be moving away from singing songs from her heart.  And this, along with Jack’s increasing and now almost constant drunkenness, signal troublesome developments in their relationship.  However and despite some quarrels, the repentant Jack proposes marriage to Ally, and she enthusiastically accepts.

4.  Reversals
With Ally’s career now ascendant and Jack’s in decline, though, tension between the two of them increases, and there are more quarrels about Ally’s new career direction.  But Ally’s professional act under the direction of Rez continues to attract fans, and she is nominated for a Grammy Award.  At the Grammy Awards ceremony, Ally wins the prize for Best New Artist.  But when she goes up onstage to accept the award, Jack drunkenly follows her up there, too, and makes a fool of himself before passing out.

The seriousness of Jack’s addiction problems is now evident to everyone, even to Jack, and he disappears into a drug rehabilitation program for a couple of months.  Upon Jack’s release and with his firm avowal to stay sober, Ally decides to spend more time with him to ensure his recovery.  She invites him to perform with her on her upcoming European tour in the hopes of renewing their old good times.  However, Rez rejects such a prospect, and so Ally decides to cancel her tour so that she can be with Jack.  Subsequently Rez privately berates Jack for damaging Ally’s career, and this makes Jack so depressed that he quietly goes off and takes his own life. 

Ally is crushed by Jack’s suicide, but ultimately decides to continue her singing.  At a tribute concert for Jack at the film’s close, she sings a song of his, “I’ll Never Love Again”, that he had written for her but had never performed.
So this story of A Star is Born is carried by the excellent musical numbers performed, sometimes separately and sometimes together, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  It should be noted, though, that for the most part these musical numbers do not reflect or underscore the film’s narrative content, the way the songs do in most dramatic musicals.  They just come along, one by one, as pleasing pieces of entertainment.  Note, though, that apart from the enjoyable music, there are other aspects of the film that come up short.

The most egregious deficiency is the shaky hand-held camerawork that is employed throughout the film.  This image shakiness was clearly intended, because it was used even in static closeups, and this was presumably done to evoke an intense, personal atmosphere.  But its use here is excessive and only serves to distract the viewer.  Another annoyance is the often mumbly and indistinctly articulated dialogue on the part of Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott (who plays Jackson Maine’s older brother, Bobby).  Both Cooper and Elliott affect Southern accents in the film, and it is often hard to hear what they are saying during their mumbling.  Robert Altman could get away with this kind of thing in certain contexts, but it doesn’t work for Cooper here.

A third problem in the film concerns the nonstop depiction of Jack’s drunkenness.  It seems almost as if Cooper, as Jack, staggers his way through much of the film in a near drunken stupor.  After awhile this becomes wearing, and it severely diminishes any potential for developing a vital romantic chemistry between Cooper and Lady Gaga.

But the film does have some essential virtues that help to compensate for the above-mentioned deficiencies.  One is the songs sung very effectively by Cooper and Lady Gaga.  These are almost uniformly appealing.  Another and most important virtue is the dramatic performance of Lady Gaga, herself.  Both onstage and off, she comes across as an authentically passionate and moving character who sustains the viewer’s interest.  It is her performance that ultimately makes A Star is Born a worthwhile viewing experience.

  1. Manohla Dargis, “Review: ‘A Star Is Born’ Brings Gorgeous Heartbreak”, The New York Times, (3 October 2018).   
  2. Tanmay Shukla, “'A Star is Born' Review: A tragically beautiful and exhilarating remake of the classic musical”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (2 October 2018).   
  3. Kenneth Turan, “Review: Bradley Cooper sings, Lady Gaga acts, and their version of 'A Star Is Born' is a total knockout”, Los Angeles Times, (2 October 2018).   
  4. Paul O’Callaghan, “Venice first look: A Star Is Born revives a Hollywood tale for the YouTube age”, Sight & Sound, (4 September 2018).   

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