It is difficult to think of a recent movie that has come close to the acclaim-versus-quality ratio of A Star is Born. Between the reviews and the buzz and Lady Gaga riding to the Venice Film Festival on the side of a speedboat, the film had become iconic before it was even released. It was never going to be a coldhearted critic’s favorite movie, but it definitely is a powerful meme. It’s the love story for our time. It’s an instant cult classic. It’s everything a tasteful move should not be, and yet it’s an undeniable success. What, in the name of Barbra Streisand, is this movie?
The first production of A Star is Born came in 1937, and starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Gaynor played an actress plucked from obscurity by the star Norman Maine, before she surpasses him in stature. In 1954, the same roles were played by Judy Garland and James Mason, except that this was a musical.
The 1976 remake, with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, turned the franchise into a romantic rock drama, filled with performance footage. Kristofferson plays a self-destructive rock star, and Streisand a younger singer named Esther. A key plot hinge is his drunken appearance during Esther’s Grammy acceptance speech, humiliating them both. This is repeated in the latest A Star is Born.
Until recently the new film was best known as a languishing white elephant once destined to star Beyoncé under the guidance of Clint Eastwood. Imagine! Instead, it has become the first movie directed by Bradley Cooper, who also stars in the film as Jackson Maine (his name is a nod to the original character, but with “Norman” wisely emended to something sexier). Across from him is Lady Gaga, as Ally. Maine is a drunk rock star, as the first scene establishes extremely clearly: First we see his hat, the kind that only old rock men wear, then we hear his fans scream, then we see him play a masturbatory guitar solo, then we see him swig from a gin bottle.
With that exposition done and dusted, he can wander in search of booze into a drag club. There, he sees Ally perform “La Vie En Rose,” and he’s done for. She warbles a song for him in a parking lot, he pulls her onstage to sing it once more, and she becomes a star. He flails, she sings, then a dramatic twist pulls it all to a satisfying close. Along the way they get a puppy.
I can only describe the experience of watching A Star is Born as like watching the trailer for A Star is Born, except that it takes longer. Almost all the elements represented by montage in the trailer are also represented by montage in the movie, instead of the full scenes that one might expect. Ally’s ascent to stardom is played out in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hyperspeed. As in the trailer, there is absolutely no transition between Ally singing in the parking lot and her performing on stage with Jackson. Did they practice off-screen, at some unseen appointment? Or are they musically psychic, improvising the now-famous “sha-sha-sha-shallow” harmony?
Characters are left to move the plot along through rich koans of plot exposition. When Cooper goes to see his childhood friend Noodles (for that is his name, played by Dave Chappelle), he conveniently reminisces that they have known each other since a specific date in time. Without that line, we’d have absolutely no idea who Noodles was. He’s a cutout. Ally and Jackson’s characters suffer something of the same fate. One is a gin bottle wearing a hat and a guitar; the other a bewigged girl who is insecure about her nose but really good at writing songs.
The whole thing rests on the performances, and, thankfully, Cooper and Gaga are both outstanding. Despite the fact that his music is objectively bad, Jackson Maine comes off as a black hole of emotional need, the kind of damaged and charismatic man who can pull love out of your chest.
But Gaga is the real surprise here. She seems unable to move her eyebrows, left to emote solely with her eyelids and the few remaining wrinkles on the sides of her nose. But her voice is in there, and she uses it to bring Ally to life. Before her character becomes extremely famous, Gaga does Ally with humor, vulnerability, and humanity—three qualities noticeably missing from Gaga’s own career. As a friend noted to me, that contrast is the making of the movie. If Lady Gaga had played Lady Gaga, it never would have worked.
Instead, we see a hungry singer belt it out on stage as if her whole life is on the line. When she first stepped onto Jackson’s stage to sing the movie’s hallmark song, I felt involuntary chills. I don’t even think the song is that good. It’s not an entirely pleasant experience to be raptured against your will, but it happened. She got me.
A Star Is Born is like a long synopsis of a movie embedded into a music video, akin to the epic Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain.” It’s schmaltzy and unsophisticated, and it plays the audience for laughs and tears in a way that is almost adorably un-self-conscious. This is not a great movie, except for the vital fact that it does not set out to be. Rather, it’s an island of emotion in a culture otherwise calcified into cynicism, doubt, and mistrust. Surrender to this film and you won’t learn anything—except, perhaps, how to feel.