A Star Is Born tells the ritualistic story of the ageing male music star who discovers a young talent, gives her a chance at stardom, and makes her famous, and as her star rises his descends. It’s a story we’ve seen in not only the three other movies of the same name but also in the likes of Yuri On Ice, Walk the Line, The Artist, New York, New York, La La Land, Begin Again and many more. But we’ve never seen it told this well.
The “stars” of the film are rock musician Jackson Maine, played by the film’s debutant writer-director Bradley Cooper, and the young ingénue Ally played vivaciously by Stefani Germanotta (an unrecognisable Lady Gaga), a waitress whom he meets at a drag bar and takes on the road with him. Germanotta is astonishing in her role, singing, acting and writing with both force and subtlety, bringing her character into vivid reality without an ounce of the manufactured image that the film parodies in its second half. As well as his directing duties Cooper holds his own opposite her onstage, he sings convincingly, has some great drunk-acting scenes and wrestles with complex emotions in a very believable way. Both onstage and backstage together they are electrifying, they have wonderful chemistry, they’re funny, they’re weird, they’re romantic and Cooper directs their scenes with impressive instincts and a guileless realism that is rarely seen in films of this scope. It feels real, it feels honest and genuine and immersive, an effect enhanced by the screen-shaking sound design and brilliant cinematography from Matthew Libatique, here using his now trademark intimate handheld close-ups to tremendous effect. The film moves from outdoor music festival stages where crowds break on the stage like waves against a harbour wall. to intimate drag clubs, bleary backstage after parties, modest suburban homes to the NASA-like control room at the SNL studio, all the while shot with a directness and improvisational spontaneity that borders on the documentarian.
I don’t, however, like the message. I don’t like the implications of what the film is saying with its ending. The film ultimately does a disservice to its own central theme, the rite of passage from old to young, from old to new, from male to female. Perhaps it was a vain choice from Cooper to increasingly focus on his own character from the midpoint onwards, but the film’s strongest asset, Ally, gets progressively less screen time as the film draws towards its conclusion. The scenes stay powerful, but the way he allows himself to pull focus away from the film’s unambiguous star just doesn’t work in service of the theme. Consequently, the films last act falls flat, ending on a disappointingly conservative note.
Obviously, not every film has to be pushing a progressive agenda, but this one did, this is a story about letting go of our social history, waving it a sad goodbye and taking solace in the innovation of the new. But Cooper frames that innovation as unambiguously negative and retreats into a regressive self-aggrandising stupor. It’s a shame that for a film that gets remade once a generation this wasn’t allowed to be this generation’s version, not wholly.