review by Kate Blair
A Star is Born is a tale almost as old as Hollywood itself. Versions of the story have been released in 1937, 1954, and 1976, making us due for a 21st-century reboot. In fact, the roots of the narrative go back even further: George Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood? was similar enough that he passed up on the opportunity to direct the 1937 version, which eventually went to William A. Wellman. Cukor, of course, eventually signed on to direct Judy Garland in the 1954 version. Later, the 70s gave us the version which seems to have most directly inspired this movie.
In this iteration of the story, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also collaborated on the screenplay and directed), a worn-down blues rock star struggling with alcoholism, happens across Ally (Lady Gaga), a musician waiting tables by day and performing in drag clubs by night. Struck by her abilities, he helps to make her a star. As Jourdain Searles noted in Bitch Magazine, the age-old story, normally framed by the experiences of the rising female star, this time focuses its more of its energy on the male, whose time in the spotlight is nearly over. The film spends more time on Maine’s struggles with mental health and addiction than it does on Ally’s journey.
One major strength of A Star is Born is the love that blossoms between the singers. However odd a pair Cooper and Gaga may be on paper, their chemistry feels real. Their gazes in the first part of the film, infused with the familiar wonder of new love, feel authentic. So do the fights that come later, when their intimacy brings out sharp and surprising cruelty. But there is also their mutual love of music, an enthusiasm that binds and deepens their relationship.
Matthew Libatique’s beautiful camerawork captures musical scenes in an improvised, concert video style. When Ally steps on stage with Maine for the first time, the focus keeps us honed into Ally’s perspective, bright lights blinding her against the crowd. She’s all alone, yet in the presence of hundreds of people. In these moments, Gaga truly shines. There is a triumphant mood to her first on-stage performance alongside Maine. It’s a poignant moment in the film that captures that unrivaled feeling of really nailing it as a performer.
Unfortunately, the film’s central ideas about authenticity and expression are tied into a sexist framing that ultimately sours it. Maine encourages Ally to sing her own songs and to be herself—that’s what will make her music truly good and important. This approach brings Ally rapid success. But as she transforms into a pop star, Maine feels she is straying from her roots. On screen, as Ally becomes more costumed and made up, in other words, more similar to the performer playing her—she compromises herself, or so Maine believes. And unfortunately the film itself seems to favor this point of view. This insidious message implies there is little art beneath the artifice of the real-life actress who plays Ally.
A Star is Born appears in some ways aware that Maine’s yearning for authenticity is misguided and shallow in itself. For instance, his throaty growl is knowingly borrowed from his brother (the flannel-voiced Sam Elliot)—a fact that draws a wedge between them. But in the end, the film seems to concede to Maine’s point of view. As a result, Ally, and by extension, Lady Gaga, is never really given the chance to shine that she deserves. And by stripping away the playful artifice that made Lady Gaga a star, the film runs the risk of inadvertently making her career more palatable to straight, male audiences.
Ultimately, Lady Gaga’s star image itself is far more interesting than anything in A Star is Born. If the filmmakers had more thoughtfully engaged with her persona, the movie would have been that much better as a result. Lady Gaga's persona is all about investigating the cult of celebrity, about masking and unmasking, simultaneously making her body visible and shielding it in shell-like costumes, sometimes holding audiences at a distance, sometimes inviting them closer. Maybe A Star is Born is all part of her project. Maybe Lady Gaga is using this film as the next step in her journey as an artist, introducing a more stripped down version of herself to the world. I kind of hope so. All I know is that I left the theater wanting to binge Lady Gaga videos and, in fact, did just that later that night. Bradley Cooper’s star looms large over A Star is Born, but I have a feeling that Lady Gaga’s star is still on its way up.