A Star is Born is such a popular property that, counting the latest version starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, it has been produced no fewer than four times. They each follow the same general plotline where an older actor and/or singer with an issue with alcohol helps a younger woman achieve her dreams of stardom.
The devil, of course, lies in the details. The 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March and the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason still hold high approval ratings, but the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson has not held up as well. History will likely be equally unkind to this latest version.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a grizzled country-rock star who can still draw a crowd, but too often lets booze rule his life. On one of his hunts for drinks following a show, he happens upon a bar where Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. Enchanted by her voice and her looks, Jackson takes Ally under his wing, giving her a bigger platform than she ever could have dreamed.
Directed by Cooper and written by Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters, the film starts off well, with a nice emphasis on the beginning of Jackson and Ally’s relationship as well as their intimate, soulful music. But right about the time that Ally gets the first hint of fame, the movie starts to go off the rails.
That’s mostly because Cooper and his team fast forward through almost every significant plot development the film has to offer. Instead of taking their time and actually showing how everything that’s happening in Jackson’s and Ally’s lives is affecting them, the story yada-yadas the “boring” parts to get right to the pivotal moments.
The problem with that is it all but removes emotion from the equation. At a crucial moment, Jackson implores Ally to remain true to herself, both in her look and her music. Ironically, Cooper doesn’t follow his character’s advice, taking the film from one that is very personal to one that has little connection to the story it’s trying to tell.
Cooper seems to have a disdain for the music industry as a whole, and it shows with the arc of Ally’s character. The music she starts to put out is antithetical to Jackson’s worldview, and the fact that she starts to see success because of it is maddening to him. However, the way in which Cooper depicts Ally’s rise and the ridiculous nature of her songs come off as amateurish at best, undercutting any gravitas the film had built up.
The lone award consideration that the film deserves is for the songs that come in first 45 minutes or so. Cooper and Gaga worked with established musicians like Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, and Mark Ronson on the soundtrack, and that experience comes through on songs like “Maybe It’s Time” and “Shallow.”
Cooper, making his writing and directing debut, is in full self-indulgent mode as an actor. Utilizing a deep growl of a voice — possibly to match Sam Elliott, who plays Jackson’s brother — goes all out in the role, often making the movie more about Jackson than Ally.
Gaga does relatively well in her first major film role. Any qualms that her off-screen fame would inform her character are quickly dispelled, but her lack of acting experience comes through on occasion. If Cooper had showcased her more or not sped through parts of the story, she likely would’ve been even better.
The latest version of A Star is Born goes big when it would have been much better off staying small. Some of the music is great, but the poor storytelling keeps the film on the ground.