The highly anticipated A Star is Born revives an old story with fresh talent and a wee-bit on-the-nose commentary about the contemporary pressures and fleeting nature of fame and the tension between artistic integrity and profitability. It’s highly romantic, complete with implausible scenarios, over-the-top-gestures, and extreme passion. It’s somewhat derivative, once again portraying the growth of a male protagonist through his relationship with an underdeveloped female character. And yet the performances from Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, and Sam Elliott will wrangle tears from even the harshest cynic as the film brutally takes us through Cooper’s character’s hellish battle with alcoholism and depression.
The title suggests that the story will revolve around Ally, Gaga’s moonlighting cabaret singer who doesn’t think she’ll make it in show business yet quits her job to follow rock star Jackson Maine to a gig. And in a sense, the story does revolve around her—but through Jackson’s eyes. After a brief exposition that doesn’t tell us much about her, it follows her story from the point Jackson, aka Jack, meets her. He watches from the sidelines as her career rises and his fades. It is his story, but I would like to counter the (fair) criticism that she only provides motivation for his growth and has little development of her own with the observation that his life is a tragedy and there can be no escape from his condition. In a way, the film accurately shows that no one in a toxic relationship can really change the other. It speaks to the resurgence and ultimate inescapability of mental illness and addiction. This isn’t a Seth Rogen comedy in which a woman forces him to clean up her act, because Jack cannot clean up his act. This is a devastating story that shines a light on the perils of Jack’s afflictions.
Jack is painfully portrayed by the beautiful Cooper, who adopted both Sam Elliott’s voice and weathered appearance for the role. He sings a lot, says little, and says a lot more with his eyes alone. Elliott is his (much) older brother who helps manage him, and the two have a deeply tense relationship that both actors compellingly growl into believability.
Gaga is adorable as Ally, but something seems missing from her character. We don’t know much about her backstory or motivation, and she seems more carried along by the script, as though her voice is the only thing that makes her special, even though the dialogue frequently celebrates the “story” she’s telling (which is…?)
The script initially focuses on Jack’s infatuation with her, which comes off as a little strange as he pokes through her boundaries and manipulates her into coming on stage. She dismisses him to her father as a “drunk,” but eventually becomes swept up in his fame as he woos her. And this is where we’re introduced to Ally’s flaw: she has no conviction. She follows Jack and stumbles into her own career rather than actively pursuing it, then “sells out” despite expressing concerns to her manager that she doesn’t want to lose her uniqueness. Jack is rightfully bewildered by her change in attitude (and hair color) and yet Ally pretends the distance between them is due to his alcoholism. I wondered the entire film why neither she nor his brother worked to intervene in his substance abuse and instead worried more about SNL appearances and tinnitus.
Ultimately, Jack loses to his condition. We’re meant to believe it’s his love for Ally that compels him to suicide, as he feels guilt for holding her back, but of course that’s not it. Unlike the previous Kristofferson iteration in which his character died in an accidental car wreck, Jack takes deliberate action. He commits suicide not because of Ally, but because suicide is the fatal symptom of substance abuse and depression.
And thus a star is born…through utter self-destruction of a hopeless romantic as he struggles to love the starlet he brought on stage. This film is a tragedy, and rightly centered on Jack, so heartbreakingly played by Cooper.
The songs, of course, play a crucial role in the film. Some, like Ally’s pop hits, aren’t nearly as good as Gaga’s real-life hits from her early albums. Others, described below, underscore critical moments in the film.
Always Remember Us This Way: Easily the best and most beautiful song on the soundtrack, Gaga offers an old-country ballad that perfectly describes her relationship with Jack, and sings it in a full-throated voice that brings it a Broadway level of epic emotion.
Shallow: The simplistic lyrics belie the incredible beauty of the melody, especially Gaga’s stunning chorus. As Rolling Stone noted, she sounds like she’s trying to swallow the stadium. Listening to the radio edit outside of the film strips it of his absurd and compelling story (after their drunken meet-cute, Jack makes an arrangement of it by the next night and brings Ally onstage to sing it with him) and leaves it something to be desired. However, it’s a gorgeous song.
Black Eyes: The first song of the film introduces Jack as a pill-popping, gin-chugging musician. Yet the song itself is guttural and brutally honest, not unlike Jack, and few other Jackson Maine songs reach the level of engagement that this song provokes.
I’ll Never Love Again: Gaga sounds beautiful in this heartbreaking farewell to Jack, but the melody falls squarely into mediocre adult contemporary territory.
Overall, the film is a stunning testament to the stars’ acting and musical skills, while providing a brutally honest and distressing portrayal of alcoholism and substance abuse. The songs are powerfully tied to the script, but ultimately secondary to the doomed romance of its two leads. The film leaves the viewer with a gut-punch of a message: love rises above fame, but even love can’t spare Jack from his total self-destruction. Damn.