Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born, is a movie of paradoxes, demonstrating again and again that two things can be true at once. Take the grumbly Marlboro accent Cooper has given his character, Jackson Maine. Sure, it can sound like the psychopath Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, but it also adds a welcome grit to this kindly alcoholic rocker, and it fits in well next to co-star Sam Elliott’s Southern drawl. And then there’s the film itself, a story that has been remade multiple times and roughly covers the same ground as its predecessors, yet also seems original and very much of its time.
These paradoxes are also built into the script, which explores the tensions between modern rock and pop music and what constitutes “selling out” these days. Lady Gaga’s character, the star who gets birthed, seems to both honor and disavow Gaga’s own real-life choices to perform banal club songs with a carefully crafted facade. To fall in love with A Star Is Born is to embrace these paradoxes and, to quote a song Gaga sings in the film, go “off the deep end” and submerge oneself “far from the shallow.” My advice? Submit. Suspend yourself in the charms and romance of this melodrama. With such familiar source material, I knew what to expect (even brought my tissues), and yet its depiction of love proved so compelling, so genuine, that I was willing to endure what I expected to be the emotional terrorism of its final reels, just for the chance to spend some carefree time with these people.
This iteration of the story melds the Judy Garland 1954 version with the better parts of 1976’s “edgier” Barbra Streisand-led alternative. Jackson Maine is an aging rock-and-roll musician who’s more often than not a sloppy drunk, coping with creeping tinnitus by obliterating himself nightly until he can no longer “hear” himself. He happens into a drag bar, where he meets Ally (Gaga), a server and cabaret performer. They bond quickly, over drinks and brawls and music. Jackson suggests that Ally join him for his next show, and though she resists at first, she does relent, and Jackson brings her on stage. The two make magic, performing Ally’s song “Shallow,” and thus begins her ascent and Jackson’s descent, as the pair struggle to keep their flame lit.
The acting tends toward a subdued, improvisational style. Gaga’s performance proves the adage that a director can make anyone a “naturalistic” actor if you point a camera at them. Her shortcomings become visible when Cooper asks her to lose control, by screaming or crying or breaking things — she’s simply not believable. That leaves Cooper the actor doing the heavy lifting, which is remarkable, considering he was both directing and transforming into his character. Scenes between Gaga and Cooper convey a satisfying playfulness, but when Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s brother Bobby) share a frame, the flinty sparks between them counter Gaga’s rawer talent.
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What’s most fascinating about this film is its subtext — despite the trailers’ promise of high drama, this proves a surprisingly quiet A Star Is Born. Ally knows Jackson is an alcoholic, so she at first turns down his advances and invitations to his shows. And when her father, played by Andrew Dice Clay, harangues her for not immediately quitting her job and jumping into a car with this famous stranger, Ally utters a memorable line: “He’s an alcoholic, Daddy. You know what that’s like.” Ally’s mother is absent from the the story, and Ally’s behavior throughout the rest of the film confirms a family history of alcoholism. She reacts to Jackson tumbling off a couch with a blasé familiarity: “It’s okay, he does this all the time.” She doesn’t judge him or meet him with angry outbursts. She long ago developed the patience required for such a partnership, and Jackson is a pass-out drunk, not a lash-out one.
That’s a fresh portrayal of love amid addiction. So many other Hollywood stories seek to sensationalize alcoholism, almost make it cool, depicting all the wild living people get into until they hit rock bottom. Here, Jackson comes across as simply sad and tired. That complicates their relationship, because it would be easier for Ally to leave if he were mean or violent or cheating. But he’s utterly devoted to her.
This devotion does eventually bloom into a little toxic flower in Jackson’s heart, however. As Ally rises toward pop stardom, Cooper as director tips his hand on his stance in the rock vs. pop debate. When Ally gets a spot on Saturday Night Live, singing about boys and asses, Cooper films the performance in the same raw style as the rest of the film, emphasizing the artifice of Ally’s new persona. Both Jackson and Cooper find that kind of party anthem empty and void of truths, and the sequence plays as a meta-criticism of Gaga’s own early career. I admit that I found myself agreeing with them, even as I shoved back anger at this man criticizing the artistic preferences of a woman, especially as the music industry demands she be simultaneously sexy and talented, while men can skate on talent alone. But Cooper does allow Ally to push back, the film suggesting that neither Jackson nor Ally is completely right about music and fame.
The A Star Is Born story construction has worked, again and again, because it’s archetypal tragedy — nobody believes there’s a happy ending in sight. But Cooper still earned every one of my tears.