A Star is Born is an old-fashioned film. Given it’s the fourth take on a title that first screened in 1937 – with remakes in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, then 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson – that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Yet it’s still a shock in 2018 to see a film open wide that’s predicated on a romance between two people, a film that flirts with drama and musical but is, first and foremost, a melodrama.
The measure of success for a melodrama is simple: does it move you? In that respect, A Star is Born is – for me, at least – an unqualified triumph. If I discard my film critic hat, eschewing the analysis for emotions, I can’t deny that I was moved by the film as it reached its tear-jerking conclusion. That’s largely a testament to the film’s authenticity; directing his first feature film, Bradley Cooper demonstrates an impressive ability to enclose his audience in an intimate and realistic world. This is essentially a two-hander, centring on rising pop star Ally (Lady Gaga) and waning country musician Jack (Cooper), with only Ally’s dad (Andrew Dice Clay) and Jack’s much older brother (Sam Elliott) getting much screentime. But through unobtrusively naturalistic camerawork – and, in particular, live music scenes shot with real crowds at real music festivals – Cooper creates an enduring sense of authenticity, the notion that these characters exist in a real, textured world.
That authenticity is particularly realised in the relationship between Ally and Jack. They meet in a Californian drag bar; he’s knee-deep in a bottle of gin, she’s painted as Édith Piaf to perform “La Vie en rose” for an adoring audience. The mood is warm, welcoming, even funny – thanks to the presence of RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Willam and Shangela as comic relief. Ally and Jack bond instantly. He’s handsy at first; he’s perhaps a little too drunk, a little too horny. But when she showcases her songwriting skills in an empty supermarket carpark, the intimacy and artistry combine to create a genuine connection that endures – for the characters and audience alike.
Music is key to A Star is Born. While it’s not precisely a musical (and I’m not just referring to Golden Globes categorisation), the film gives a significant portion of its runtime over to musical performances: country rock music from Jack, soaring duets between the two lovers and, later, pop performances from Ally alone. The music is often competent and occasionally good, with lyrics attuned to the story’s rhythms. Early track “Maybe It’s Time”, for instance, suggests at once Jack’s self-destructive tendencies and the film’s themes of generational conflict (“Maybe it’s time to let the old things die”), while the title of instrumental track “Out of Time” underlines that message.
But it’s the film’s key song – and likely Oscar winner – “Shallow” that anchors A Star is Born. Not only is it a goosebump-inducing tune – particularly as it’s employed within the film – its water motif proves crucial. “I’m off the deep end/Watch as I dive in,” sings Ally, but it’s Jack who’s clinging to her as a life raft. Initially he sees her as a vessel to buoy his declining talent, something good to sail off into the world. But soon he’s drowning – in his own self-doubt and alcoholism – and he senses that he’s dragging her down beneath the waves. This watery symbolism is only employed occasionally within the film, as in a scene of Cooper’s character arising from a swimming pool, but its importance should be clear to anyone familiar with how either of the last two A Star is Born films ended.
A film relying on such intimate relationships lives or dies on its performances, and this is where A Star is Born truly soars. Sure, Cooper’s gravelly southern voice feels like an unnecessary flourish, as though he’s playing on ‘hard mode’ to impress Oscar voters (who, let’s be clear, are already very much in Bradley Cooper’s camp). Yet it’s hard to fault anything else. His singing is more than competent, and he’s regularly able to suggest the enormity of his character’s emotions without words. He’s undeniably outshone by Gaga, who really impresses. She has to do more than Cooper – Jack’s perspective is privileged, especially in the third act – but she’s effortlessly effective, doing a lot without ever making it look like work. Sam Elliott warrants consideration come awards season, too, achieving a great deal with limited screentime.
My primary issue with the film is a pretty big one, though I confess it only really bothered me in retrospect. As Ally begins upon her path to pop stardom – synchronised dance moves, Grammy awards and SNL appearances – Jack grows resentful (and increasingly drunk), accusing her of insincerity in her musical output. With lyrics like “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” you can see his point, but my initial impression was that the film proper was taking a somewhat agnostic stance of issues of pop vs country and authenticity vs performativity. Later scenes – including a real clunker where Ally’s manager upbraids Jack and clumsily lays out a whole of hour of subtext in dialogue – suggest that the film’s more in line with Jack than I’d thought.
The issue here isn’t necessarily that A Star is Born is anti-mainstream pop; that’s a position it’s welcome to take. Rather, the issue is that its suggestions that pop, or at least Ally’s iteration of pop music, is inauthentic aren’t borne out by the narrative because of an inexorable shift away from her towards him. When Ally gets up on SNL to perform “Why Did You Do That?”, it’s clearly an artistic nadir, but because we haven’t been privy to her perspective, we have no idea if this is a song that she has ownership over or something she’s been pressured into performing by her label. Understanding this is crucial to positioning her character into this question of authenticity, and these omissions really harm the immersive, intimate atmosphere established earlier. They hardly scuttle the film; its climax is undeniably deeply moving. But it’s not hard to imagine a sharper, more generous version of A Star is Born that finds more time for Ally and perhaps a little less for Jack.