A Star Is Born is an immense achievement worthy of its legacy, reminding us that epic romances and Hollywood melodramas need not be a thing of the past.
Ten years ago, Lady Gaga released her first studio album and was just beginning to break into the music scene. Meanwhile Bradley Cooper’s acting credits that year include The Midnight Meat Train and Yes Man. It’s unlikely that anyone could have predicted these two would one day team up and deliver one of the best movies of the year and yet…
A Star Is Born opens in theaters across the country this weekend and, if there’s any justice, the world is about to fall in love with it. Cooper’s directorial debut, the fourth formal remake of A Star Is Born (the fifth if you count George Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood), yet despite retreading familiar territory, Cooper and Gaga make this world, these characters, and this story feel brand new again.
Before I talk more about A Star Is Born, I’m going to talk about High School Musical. Bear with me.
I remember as though it were yesterday the first time I watched High School Musical. I watched the night it first premiered on Disney Channel and, like so many kids my age, I fell in love with it. I remember watching it and feeling confused as to why I kept getting the chills. I told my mom I thought I was getting sick. She asked why and I told her about the chills. She laughed and told me that I was probably getting goosebumps from the movie. She was right.
That was the first time I remember being aware of my body having a physical reaction to a movie. It didn’t really matter the quality of said movie, only that it brought out that unique feeling; the one that makes you feel like you’re body is vibrating a little as your heart rises from your chest to your throat and you feel tears start to well up in your eyes as the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention.
A Star Is Born captures that feeling like lightning in a bottle.
The movie kicks off by introducing us to Jackson Maine (Jack for short) played by Bradley Cooper. Like so many of the movie’s best scenes, we watch Jack doing what he loves most – perform. This is Jack’s peak in the film; it’s the first and final time Jack is portrayed as nothing more than a successful artist.
The rest of the movie is spent tearing down that image, fleshing out Jack’s identity as a fading rock star, a struggling performer, and an angry and bitter man with debilitating drug and alcohol addiction. A Star Is Born rips apart the image of Jackson Maine the musician and replaces it with a far more authentic and troubling portrait of a broken man.
It’s fitting that the movie would engage in this thoughtful deconstruction of celebrity identity given the movie’s titular star. If anyone knows what it’s like to have an identity built up and torn down around her, it’s Lady Gaga.
It’s been said before, but this really is Lady Gaga like you’ve never seen her before. Her performance as Ally is disarmingly naturalistic yet unrefined. She exudes a raw energy that ebbs and flows with a winning charm and an underdog attitude.
Her performance is so lived in that you may be misled into thinking she’s just playing herself. Don’t be fooled. Gaga’s performance is as thoughtful and measured as Cooper’s, just in an entirely different direction. Whereas he is worn out and cold to the world, she is bright eyed, optimistic, and generous. They are the perfect balance for one another.
This is what A Star Is Born gets right: it approaches this story as a character-based melodrama, drawing all the dramatic tension from these two richly drawn characters and the intense love they share. It’s a romance story set against the backdrop of fame, not the other way around.
By bringing together two very convincing and independently compelling characters, the movie gives us ample reason to invest in this epic romance, complete with the year’s best meet-cute, a perfect love-on-the-first-date, disarming romantic gestures, heart wrenching choices, and tumultuous ups and downs.
Cooper makes the confident choice to structure the film in a rather unconventional way. Almost the entire first half of the movie focuses on just the first few days of Ally and Jack’s courtship – first introducing them as individuals before bringing them together in the year’s best possible meet-cute.
The first half of the movie saturates the audience with the intense feelings Jack and Ally share, ensuring that we believe in the love they share – and boy oh boy, will it convince you.
The second half of the film is in stark opposition to the first half; unlike the slow and delicate beginnings of their romance, things begin to move much faster, jumping forward weeks and months at a time. Every new scene introduces new elements that change and complicate the central romance. The division between Ally and Jack grows as her fame skyrockets and his alcoholism impedes his ability to function – as both a performer and a lover.
The pacing of the second half of the movie also spares the audience, in large part, from rote demonstrations of music industry drama. The movie is largely unconcerned with the details of Ally’s rise of fame. We don’t need to see the conversations she’s having with her label, her arguments with her manager, her album release party; these things exist in the margins of the story, informing the changes to the central romance.
A Star Is Born never loses sight of the fact that this is a story about two artists, two talented performers, who fall in love. The structure of the film articulates how that love becomes a performance in and of itself.
Performance is at the heart of this story and A Star Is Born doesn’t shy away from that, continually spotlighting the talent and artistry of these characters through their music. There are several different kinds of performances in the movie – from intimate sessions beside a piano to thunderous live stadium concerts – and not a single one goes to waste. Each performance is essential to the development of the larger story – whether it’s Jack and Ally’s relationship, Jack’s alcoholism, or Ally’s evolving career.
Take the first performance of “Shallow” as an example. What makes this performance such a profoundly moving and deeply affecting moment is not just the precise swell of instruments or Lady Gaga’s impressive vocals. It’s that we’re watching two people open up to one another, making space in each other’s lives and hearts that once only belonged to them. The lyrics of the song are more than just lyrics: they are personal confessions and cautious admissions of the heart – expressing the kind of vulnerability that will give you chills like you wouldn’t believe.
The musical performances in A Star Is Born serve to punctuate the dramatic beats in the story that might otherwise be a just domestic drama. That’s at least part of the genius of A Star Is Born; it straddles the line between a simple yet devastating love story about two artists and a timeless allegory about fame and family. The use of these performances, set against the backdrop of a blossoming career, elevate the melodrama in the rest of the film.
Towards the end of the movie, a character says, “There’s only 12 notes, and the octave repeats. All an artist can do is offer the world how he sees those 12 notes.”
This line echoes a subtle self-awareness the film has. It’s a concession that this story and these characters are not quote-unquote original. A Star Is Born is a Hollywood trademark and, by now, audiences are bound to be at least somewhat familiar with this story.
What Cooper understands, however, is that the story doesn’t have to be new, it just needs to be honest. Together, Cooper and Gaga find a way to rearrange those 12 familiar notes to create something fresh that will surprise you, that will sneak into your chest and make you believe in the unbelievable.
Sure, this is undeniably a Hollywood story, both in a textual and extratextual sense; not only is this a Hollywood archetype brought to life, but the film itself is a part of a long legacy that Cooper and Gaga honor and make new again.
However, A Star Is Born has a rare and unrefined energy, one that sets it apart from the versions of this story that have been told before. Never before has this story felt so vulnerable, proudly showing its stitches and flaws.
A Star Is Born is the rare studio film where every piece coalesces to form something miraculous. It’s the kind of movie that delivers that hair-raising, heart-pounding, chill-inducing feeling over and over again, winning your admiration and earning your tears. This story may have been told before, but it’s never been told quite like this.