I first saw the 1954 version of A Star Is Born on the big screen; I got to see it as part of a sidebar program at the Chicago International Film Festival several years ago, and despite its length (the restored cut is just 4 minutes shy of three hours long), I was riveted. Judy Garland’s Vicki Lester is so complex, so multifaceted; it’s clear this role is a sort of accomplishment for a woman who’d been on screen since the age of 14, and Garland’s ability to carry the character from ingenue to stardom to desperation is, in a word, striking.
The story—an aging, veteran entertainer discovers an up-and-comer only to see her fame eclipse his—seems to be catnip for every generation of filmmakers and audiences, from its first incarnation in 1937 to Garland’s in 1954 to Barbara Streisand’s version in 1976. Nearly 40 years later, one of the biggest stars in film (Bradley Cooper) has chosen this epic to be his directorial debut, casting a mega pop star (Lady Gaga) in the lead role, marking her acting debut.
Forgive me if, when I first heard of the project at least a year ago, I was skeptical. Why do this story all over again? And why trust a first-time filmmaker with a $35M property—a musical, at that?
Friends, my skepticism was unfounded. A Star Is Born of 2018, on which Cooper shares writing credits with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Will Fetters (Remember Me), is a contemporary, finely-tuned saga of love, ambition, addiction and connection. It is sharply realized, Cooper proving himself to be a filmmaker with a keen eye for moments that make an impact, and Lady Gaga arrives with a whole new threat to add to her bag of tricks, that of powerhouse actress.
It’s true that in both cases, this could be nothing more than lightning caught in a bottle—a perfect storm of story, creative drive and circumstance. It could be that Cooper will never direct another film (or, at least, not one as good as this one) or that Gaga will ever act again (or, at least, not in a role so perfectly matched to her strengths and vulnerabilities). Even if that is the case, it matters little, for we’ll always have A Star Is Born.
In this latest iteration, Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, a rocker with plenty of years on the road behind him; he’s thick skinned, gravely voiced and, usually, completely sauced. (But oh, do those baby blues shine!) After a show, he’s on the hunt for a place to grab a drink, winding up at a drag bar where one of the cocktail waitresses actually gets a chance to sing now and then. It’s Ally (Lady Gaga), and she delivers a vamped up version of La Vie en Rose that’s so magnificent, I found myself wanting to applaud as the final chords faded.
Jackson, we learn, is just as smitten. He wastes no time in introducing himself the songbird, and what at first seems like run-of-the-mill flirting soon becomes mutual infatuation. They stay up all night talking, and as he drops her off at home with the sunrise, he asks her to come out to his next show that night. It’s no spoiler to say that Ally lets her curiosity get the best of her; though rationally she knows it’s crazy to follow this superstar down whatever path he’s inviting her, she’s caught up in the magic of it all. When he calls her out from the wings to perform together (a song she wrote and shared with him during that all-nighter), our stomachs are in just as many knots as Ally’s. This festival crowd is way bigger than a dive bar downtown.
This moment, as Cooper and Gaga give over entirely to their performances, is transcendent. Jackson, in Ally, has rediscovered a youthful passion for music he thought he’d lost; and Ally, in Jackson, has found someone who truly, wholeheartedly believes in her, and it will make all the difference.
The rest of the film follows a fairly well-worn narrative, in line with the earlier versions of this timeless tale. Modernized as it is (there’s a YouTube video that goes viral, a performance on SNL, you get the idea), at its core this newest A Star Is Born hits all the marks the older versions do, too. Ally’s star rises to precipitous heights; Jackson’s fades and his demons threaten to get the better of him; their lives intersect and intertwine for better and for worse, until we reach a breaking point from which there’s no coming back.
The journey to that heartbreaking moment and its repercussions is nothing short of riveting. Lady Gaga carries Ally from a shy, insecure aspiring musician to an award-winning superstar with a bevy of handlers and yes-people, and the honesty she delivers every step of the way can only be ascribed to her own experience with this particular odyssey. And Cooper rises to the meet her, transmitting a vulnerability of which I honestly didn’t realize he was capable. Lots has been made of the parallels between each actor and their character, Gaga as pop star and Cooper as addict in recovery. It’s a fair comparison. It’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t been through these trials and triumphs being able to act their way through them. That these two connect so viscerally with their characters only serves to elevate the entire proceedings.
That, and the music.
The whole soundtrack is now streaming, and as if the film doesn’t achieve enough on its own, the new music woven throughout is bound to be on heavy rotation in earbuds everywhere. The songs, penned by Lady Gaga and Lukas Nelson (of Promise of the Real), are—in a word—good. The catchiest track is Shallow, a duet about falling in love and the song featured in that pivotal first performance; even the tracks meant to be over-produced and campy play as perfect, hitting (literally?) all the right notes for where they land in the narrative.
From start to finish, A Star Is Born exceeds every expectation. Cooper, Gaga, and everyone involved (Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother and manager; Anthony Ramos as Ally’s supportive best friend) seem to understand exactly what’s at stake from the outset, and the cumulative result is a film that proves the naysayers and skeptics (including me) wrong.
Were it rated PG-13 (it’s R for language, substance abuse, blah blah blah), Cooper’s take on this enduring story could have easily found its way into Titanic territory (and I suppose perhaps it still could). From box office legacy to cultural impact, this is the kind of film that we’ll look back on in a year, five years, twenty years and be grateful it’s part of our collective cinematic history.