I could have happily lived the rest of my life without seeing any of the now four versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018). But on a long flight, I decided on a whim to watch the latest version, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I like Bradley Cooper as an actor, and this is also his directorial debut. I was also curious about Lady Gaga, whom I had never actually heard. (Can I refer to her as “Gaga” for short?)
Much to my surprise, I loved A Star Is Born, and although I am sure this pun has been used a million times, I was absolutely gaga about the lead actress’s performance. It is not a perfect movie, but it is so captivating and emotionally powerful that quibbling seems like heartlessness and ingratitude.
Bradley Cooper is an amazingly versatile and charismatic actor, and now we can add director and musician to his talents. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a 40-something rock star whose music seems like country or folk in some scenes, hard rock and grunge in others (in short, wipipo music). I think he is supposed to make us think of Chris Cornell or Curt Cobain.
Maine is a brooding artist type with a drink and drug problem. He is losing his hearing, which adds to his isolation. Cooper voices him with a sort of gruff cowboy/stoner monotone, which is annoying but realistic. He is constantly leaning in to conversations to hear better, or mishearing and misunderstanding people. But with Cooper, it somehow adds to the character’s charm and autistic ingenuousness.
One night, after a concert, Maine is looking for a place to continue drinking and ends up at a drag bar where he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform “La vie en rose.” It was a dangerous choice that invites all sorts of invidious comparisons. Aside from a tantalizing bit of “Over the Rainbow” earlier in the film, this was the first time I had heard and seen Lady Gaga. Her French is wobbly, and I feared she would butcher the song with the vulgar mannerisms of Broadway or soul, but the few lines she belts out are actually thrilling.
But the most masterful stroke of her performance is what she doesn’t sing. When she notices Cooper, she freezes for a moment and forgets to sing “Et, dès que je l’apercois” (And when I notice him). Then she completes the line “alors je sens en moi mon coeur qui bat” (I feel inside me my heart beating)—a gesture which pretty much stopped my heart dead. From that moment on, I was in love with this film.
“La vie en rose” is about the rapture and blindness of love, which of course foreshadows what is to come. But Gaga’s performance did not prepare me for what was in store musically. There was a bit of unpleasant belting in a parking lot which made me cringe, but Gaga’s next song, a duet with Cooper called “Shallow,” was truly astonishing. Cooper is really good, but Gaga’s voice is electrifying, combining power with emotional subtlety.
A few comparisons come to mind: Judy Garland, Cher, K. D. Lang, Adele, Dulce Pontes. But really, Lady Gaga is in a class by herself. I am one of those people who literally get chills from powerful music, but Lady Gaga is the only pop singer who has ever had this effect on me. (Needless to say, Lady Gaga could deliver the best James Bond song ever.)
Musically, I thought everything would go downhill after “Shallow,” but only a few scenes later, Gaga topped it with “Always Remember Us This Way,” an utterly heartbreaking distillation of the relationship that forms between Cooper and Gaga’s characters. If this song does not bring a tear to your eye, check your pulse. You’re probably dead.
I was also impressed with Gaga’s performance as an actress. There is not a flat or a false note. Just freshness and authenticity. I suspect that the character of Ally is not too far from Lady Gaga herself. Both Cooper and Gaga brilliantly portray artists because, well, they are artists.
And for all the egotism, insecurity, and drama that surrounds it, the core of all art is still a kind of self-transcendence, the creation of meaning and beauty. The more you share physical goods, the less you have for yourself. But meaning and beauty can be shared with the whole world without reducing one’s own store. Both artists beautifully capture the magic of creation and performance, as well as all the little things that can get in the way.
Maine is fascinated with Ally and wants to get to know her. Naturally, she suspects it is just a pick-up, but sexually Maine is jaded and probably impotent. He is actually more interested in her as an artist and a person. A few scenes later, when their relationship has deepened, they practically race each other to a hotel room (a beautiful touch). But as soon as Maine gets inside, he passes out drunk.
Maine is at the peak of his career, but his hearing loss and addictions already map out his decline. He has everything he wants and feels like sharing. Ally has talent but lacks self-confidence. Maine gives her the encouragement she needs to share her songs with the world, and a star is born. They also fall in love and marry, and the dramatic conflict in the rest of the film springs from the opposite trajectories of their careers.
It is impossible not to like Jackson Maine, and this brings me to my only serious criticism of the script. It is easy for Cooper to play Maine as a really nice guy because he’s written that way. But performers with drug and alcohol problems are generally not nice normal people, with just a little addiction issue off to the side. They often have serious personality disorders. They can be narcissistic, manipulative, borderline, bipolar, etc. They put the people around them through hell. Frankly, though, Cooper could have still made such a character into an irresistibly charismatic hot mess.
But there’s only the slightest hint of that kind of ugliness and jealousy in the film, and frankly it seems at least partially justified, for Maine is rightly disgusted with the music Ally makes when she goes commercial. She sounds like those soulless wind-up autotune divas that I hear everywhere on the radio dial for a few tense seconds as I frantically search for something better. (A horrible thought crosses my mind: Maybe Gaga really is one those autotune divas.)
But what am I complaining about? If Cooper played Maine as a charismatic monster, it might have added realism to the character and challenges to the actor—but it would also have made A Star Is Born into a far less tragic and emotionally powerful film. Let somebody else make that film.
I highly recommend A Star Is Born. I won’t say anything more about the plot. Through some miracle, I didn’t know the end, despite the immense commentary surrounding all four versions, so I approached the movie naïvely and enjoyed it all the more. I don’t want to deny you the same pleasure.