Gaga's performance stuns and chills in Cooper's A Star is Born
One thing’s certain: Bradley Cooper understands the power that music can have. In his directorial debut, A Star is Born — the fourth film iteration of the same story with this title — Cooper captures concerts and musical performances in a way that digs deep and holds on tight.
His work continues to be felt afterward, especially wherever Lady Gaga is present. What a shame Cooper’s film values his character more.
Cooper stars as Jackson Maine — in the 1937 and 1954 films, the analogous character was named Norman, a little too refined for the 2018 character — a country music star on his way out of the limelight. Alcohol and drugs have been dragging him down for a while and his repeated musical refrain, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” resonates.
When he stumbles across a drag bar and hears Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, delivering a piercing rendition of “La vie en rose,” Jack pulls the aspiring singer into his life, bringing her onstage and starting her off on a path to stardom. Along the way, the pair falls in love.
Nearly every one of Ally’s performances is stunning. Lady Gaga’s vocal range is emphasized by the music, such as in “Shallow,” where her belting is explosive and deeply affecting. In “Always Remember Us This Way,” the song that transitions Ally from viral video sensation to a star in the making, the vocal work is chillingly good.
Cooper recognizes and highlights Lady Gaga’s incredible talent repeatedly, and clearly understands how strong her gaze is, bringing it out with eye-to-camera contact. Twice, she stares directly at the audience and both times, it feels earth-shattering.
Still, Cooper is not fair to Lady Gaga. In the 1954 A Star is Born, Norman wipes the makeup off his love, Esther. Jack repeatedly criticizes Ally for changing her look and developing a sound that is not what she started with. He states that she should have something worth saying, but he never really clarifies what it is that he believes is meaningful enough to be said. It’s true that Ally’s song “Why Did You Do That?” is a waste of Lady Gaga’s incredible talent — purposefully so, within the story — but Jackson does little to help Ally as she rises to stardom, only tearing her down.
There is a problematic power imbalance at play. Ally and Jack consummate their love after a concert where he used his platform to introduce Ally to the world. Perhaps Ally actually cares for Jack, but during a time when conversations abound on the topic of powerful men taking advantage of women to whom they offer fame, A Star is Born feels tone-deaf in this regard. Jackson condescends to Ally, treating her as though she were inferior to him and telling her how embarrassing she is.
Bobby, Jack’s brother, relates to Ally a theory about how all music is comprised of the same 12 notes in different octaves. He says, “It’s the same story told over and over,” and it’s each artist’s unique outlook on the notes that makes the difference.
In this fourth retelling, Cooper does a commendable job, despite the flaws and gaps. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography takes the audience into the thick of every musical performance. As the first scripted production of Live Nation Entertainment, A Star is Born goes all in to depict the concert experience.
For a first-time director, Cooper does an admirable job. His vision is clear, though his themes get muddled. The tragedy is too much about him and even though he realizes the talent Lady Gaga has to offer, his film values his own talent more. Lady Gaga evokes the sense that she controls the screen. The script shows that Cooper does. There is a selfishness there that mirrors Jack’s.
Maybe a fourth version of the same story was not vital to this retelling.
Jack says of Ally’s audience, “They’re listening right now and they’re not going to be listening for long.” Perhaps Cooper should have heeded his own character’s insight. A Star is Born is a great film, but still. Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.