It would be easy to write off A Star As Born as just another remake of a tired love story. On the surface, Bradley Cooper's directorial debut does hit similar plot beats that its predecessors have tread down; however, Cooper and Lady Gaga (in a defining, likely award-winning performance) find humanity in characters that previously felt like plot devices.
In fact, every moment in Cooper's film feels refined and important. The smallest interactions inform our protagonists and their arcs -- from Ally's father huddling around to watch her breathtaking performance of "Shallow" on YouTube with his friends, to Bradley Cooper taking in the friendly banter at the drag bar he winds up in after a gig. Not only does that deepen our characters, it also provides more texture and nuance to the film itself; the world feels lived in, not artificial.
A Star Is Born follows Jack and Ally, the former a musician struggling with alcoholism and depression, the latter a starry-eyed, aspiring singer and writer. While this set up feels very dry from reading it (likely due to the fact that the plot was derived in 1937), Cooper's deft direction and Lady Gaga's mesmerizing performance breathe new life into this concept and make it into an astounding experience.
Hollywood has a tendency to lionize struggling male artists, often to such a degree that the female lead's entire role is to support the male lead. While A Star Is Born does dip its toe into the waters of romanticization when it comes to Jack's alcoholism (mainly in the first act of the film), it's refreshing how Cooper treats Ally as an equal partner (revolutionary, I know). In fact, her arc is just as important as Jack's; they are intertwined, but also independent. One understands that, while Ally is supporting Jack through his struggle, she is not waiting on his beck and call. It's this sense of narrative equality that makes the final act so devastating.
Cooper also treats Jack's alcoholism and depression with the degree of delicacy it deserves. His performance and his direction both show how complex addiction and depression are. As devastating as it was to watch Jack's arc unfold, it was comforting watching Cooper treat it with the gravitas it deserves.
A discussion of A Star Is Born is not complete without mentioning the music. This is part of the reason Cooper's version of this story is the defining one, in my humble opinion. "Shallow" is an incredible song; it could have been released as a single not associated with this film, and it would do well on the radio. It's catchy, emotional, and impactful. As is expected, Lady Gaga's musicianship remains as confident and powerful as ever. What is surprising is Cooper's abilities behind a microphone and on the guitar. One gets the sense that this is truly a troubled musician, someone who escapes into their work to avoid the realities of their life. This is especially true when we see Jack and Ally perform "Shallow" together for the first time; there's a glint that appears in Jack's eyes -- it's knowing, happy, excited even. We get the feeling that Jack is, for the first time in a long time, excited to play. Not only is that exciting to watch, it is to integral to the efficacy of the plot.
"Shallow" is not the only hit from this film, though. Every song that we hear, from Jack's blues-rock singles to Ally's pop numbers are catchy and impressively written. Yet, there is a clear difference drawn between the music Jack and Ally write and sing together, and the music they play alone.
A Star Is Born could have been bad; it could have felt dry, tired, and repetitive. The story has been told so many times that retreading similar themes and plot points would have been easy. However, Cooper, Lady Gaga, and the rest of the team that worked on this film injected life, pathos, and sympathy into this project. Every emotional beat, from the end of the first act to the ending moments, feel earned and honest. A Star Is Born is technically a remake, but it earns its distinction as the defining version of this tragic story.
“A STAR IS BORN” ★★★★★
directed by BRADLEY COOPER
written by ERIC ROTH, BRADLEY COOPER & WILL FETTERS
Released October 5, 2018 || Rated R || 136 MIN