A Star is Born has two really great things going for it. One, a star/director who really, really cares about the film. Two, it has Lady Gaga.
This is the second time the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been reimagined, and this version bears a closer resemblance to the 1976 incarnation than the original. Washed up rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets Ally (Lady Gaga) and they fall in love, allowing her access to the career and stardom she’s always dreamed of while he continues to be pulled down by his alcoholism and drug addiction.
It’s a simple story, which isn’t surprising given its Classic Hollywood origins. But it’s a simple story revolving around characters brought to life to such a degree that it almost manages to be bigger than its story.
Almost, in my opinion, because while Bradley Cooper is an incredibly talented actor who disappears into Jackson Maine, the one thing he can’t do is convince me that he’s a bigger star than Lady Gaga. And that’s kind of the point that gets brought out time and again in the film, that the best singers don’t necessarily make it to the biggest stages for whatever reason. By taking Ally up on stage for the first time, Jackson offers her the chance to break past the barriers she’s both encountered and created in her own mind and show the world she belongs up there. And she proves that she does.
I loved the first act of this movie. This is when the movie feels the most like two real humans interacting at a strange crossroads in their lives. But in order to properly follow the trajectory of the original films, a pop-manager character (Rafi Gavron) is introduced to begin directing Ally’s career away from the ‘something to say from the soul’ direction that Jackson pilots his life by, and that he imagined would take her far too.
By this point, Jackson and Ally don’t feel like real people. Jackson becomes a caricature of a principled, “you sold out man” artist, and Ally becomes a parody of pop music in general. Their relationship suffers, Ally becomes a pop icon, and Jackson continues to self destruct physically and emotionally. And as the film continues along to reach the climax, I started feeling like maybe there was a better movie to be had here without the name and plot beats of A Star is Born.
So much of Jackson’s self destruction and Ally’s changes in her beliefs don’t feel well motivated, and it betrays the realness set up by the first third of the film. Ally briefly fights to maintain some independence of her performance in one scene, refusing backup dancers her manager hires. But shortly after, she’s recorded songs that are clearly meant to show his influence is ‘crushing her voice.’
Jackson is more difficult to parse, as alcoholism and drug addiction are powerful pulls that change a person’s rationalizations. But the film doesn’t seem to have a good idea of how to have him handle Ally’s fame. Is he jealous she’s a star? Is he more upset she’s not living out her ideals in the way he envisioned she would? It doesn’t help that time flows strangely, with some scenes taking place weeks or months after a cut. I’m not even asking for the film to take these two characters to a better ending than they ultimately reach — just give me one that properly fits.
Because it is a good movie. For a while. And the music is great. The film fits neatly into the low-to-mid budget, adult drama film category that has all but gone extinct in this era of filmmaking, and I couldn’t be happier about that. The performances are great. Somebody is going to win an Academy Award for their work on this film, and I really hope it’s Lady Gaga.
But the real world characters don’t fit well into the story beats laid out by the storytelling of the 1930s and 1970s, and hopefully now that he’s shown he can make a pretty solid film in spite of that, Bradley Cooper will be given the chance to tell a story where he controls the full trajectory.
Great performances can’t transcend a story that doesn’t feel at home in 2018.