I really wanted to like A Star is Born. Like most film enthusiasts, I read the reviews and tweets coming out of Telluride and Toronto and got very excited over what was promising to be a potential Oscar-contender.
I’ve always had my reservations toward musicals, but the last few that had come out (La La Land, Into the Woods) impressed me, so I’d figure I’d give this musical romantic drama a chance. Still, and in all honesty, I feel this fourth re-imagining of a young artist’s rise contrasting another’s downfall doesn’t live up to the massive hype the critics have placed upon its head.
The first hour of this film starts out fairly strong: Singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also applies to himself co-writing, co-producing and directing duties) is a burnt-out country music star with a penchant for hard drinking and snorting pills. Ally (Lady Gaga) is an aspiring singer-songwriter whose weeknights are spent performing at a drag bar. When Jackson, itching for a drink, walks in to Ally performing on stage, he is instantly mesmerized by her talent.
From there, the two begin a whirlwind romance, intertwined with Jackson taking Ally under his wing and breaking her into the music business, where her star begins to shine. Gaga’s official introduction to the big stage happens when Cooper spontaneously announces that he wants to use one of her songs during a set. The scene of them performing “Shallow” is a showstopper in of itself; one perfectly following a quietly strong instance where the two opening up to each other outside of a supermarket leads to Ally first composing the song.
“Tell me something boy / Aren’t you tired tyting to fill that void?” she sings. “Or do you need more? Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?” It is during this moment that Jackson not only realizes that she has it — that certain quality that promises someone is bound by fate to become a big deal, but that she’s managed to pierce through his emotional armor in a way few people have, if ever.
It’s also the moment we realize that the hype and talk surrounding Lady Gaga’s performance being Award-caliber wasn’t just buzz. She brings a stripped-down, authentic and surprising vulnerability to the role that not many actresses could pull-off. In true life imitating art fashion, she does so even as, ironically enough, her character is being branded a modern pop star in the form of her stage name.
It’s the best performance I’ve seen from a musical act since Eminem shocked the world with his turn in 8 Mile back in 2002.
Not to be outdone, Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine hits a new career-best for an actor whose resume includes American Sniper, Silver Linings Playbook and Limitless. His song, “Maybe It’s Time”, like many beloved songs, feels so personal to the artist that it’s impossible to hear it without thinking they’re really talking about their own lives. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die…it takes a lot to change a man; hell, it takes a lot to try,” Maine croons. He’s a complex man whose life has dealt him a difficult hand – one he chose to play by drinking and snorting away the hardships.
His brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), resents Jackson himself being the star and him being regulated to constantly cleaning after his brother’s fuck ups. His friend, Noodles (comedian Dave Chappelle), is in good company with worry yet, after Jackson shows up drunk and blacked out on his yard, it’s Ally who finally convinces him to go cold turkey and get checked into rehab. With everything presented as an offering at the shrine of a relationship that’s certainly set to crash and burn, from his entrance on the stage, as much passionate to perform as he is wasted, to Jackson breaking down in rehab, Cooper allows us to see the fractured, burned out soul within.
Yet for all the positives, the film, much like Jackson Maine himself, begins to fizzle out during its second half. The first part is all about the discovery of Ally, her sound and the thrill of creating whereas, later, the movie quickly becomes about how rapidly she is being catapulted to superstardom, with all that this entails.
Showing us the grinding, non-stop comings and goings of the record business while creating Ally’s version 2.0 (an affair comprised of a smorgasbord of dancers, style changes, promo shoots, appearances on Saturday Night Live, recording, etc.), is the aspect I, personally, never really found to be all that compelling.
This section just feels like a chore to get through as the rift begins to emerge in the lovers’ hopeless relationship: Ally goes back on her word when she expresses her weariness over putting up with his drinking, and Jackson worries that her new manager (Rafi Gavron) is turning her into a pop product for the masses, rather than a true singer-songwriter. While this would make for a captivating conflict, it is Jackson’s drug abuse spiraling out of control as everything comes to a head during the Grammys ceremony that most engages the mind with interest.
At this point, I thought I knew where this would go – Ally finally ending it with Jackson, and the latter succumbing to his addiction, OD’ing on hard drugs. Surely set to be emotionally wrenching to witness, that would feel like a tragic yet complete arc for a character struggling with dependence. However, that’s not where this film ends up. I won’t give it away, but I will say is this: the way the situation is presented feels almost out of character despite being foreshadowed in certain parts thought the movie — and I, for one, have a very hard time buying the outcome the filmmakers laid out.
To conclude, despite terrific performances by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, as well as sublime original music by its stars, A Star is Born simply didn’t resonate with me like its contemporaries La La Land and Beyond the Lights did. On one hand, all three films deal with the harsh face of stardom as the protagonists try to make a name for themselves, successfully navigating their talent and dreams in the business of entertainment. On the other, I feel this movie did not do an overall good enough a job as its thematic counterparts.
Or, to quote Terrence Fletcher, “Not quite my tempo.”