An extraordinary turn from Lady Gaga elevates the otherwise unremarkable A Star is Born
It’s a rare treat to see someone in a role they were truly born to play. Sometimes an actor so perfectly encompasses a role that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t created as a tribute to the actor themselves. It’s especially hard to believe in the case of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s (Silver Linings Playbook) directorial debut and the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name, which casts international sensation Lady Gaga (American Horror Story) as the titular star and lets her run away with it. Of course, when William A. Wellman wrote and directed the original, it would be decades before Gaga was even born. But she is so, so good that it justifies the existence of this otherwise unremarkable film.
The story is virtually the same as in its three predecessors, with a few modern twists: beloved country-rock musician Jackson Maine (Cooper) by chance discovers hugely talented singer-songwriter Ally (Gaga) and enters into a whirlwind romance with her, one that will propel her into the world of superstardom. However, the two both carry their fair share of baggage; Maine is a hard-drinking, drug addicted loner plagued by a traumatic childhood and increasingly severe tinnitus, while Ally is left insecure and haunted by years of rejections over her image. The chemistry between the two is palpable, but Maine’s bad habits threaten their relationship, and Ally’s burgeoning career, at every turn.
It’s not exactly a plot that screams originality, but Cooper and company know the star attraction isn’t the set-up, it’s Gaga. Not to say there isn’t worth in the rest of the film’s ensemble as well. Cooper gives it his best shot in the lead role, growling through a hackneyed accent to provide an intense, if uninspired, take on the tortured artist role we’ve seen time and time again. He shines most in intimate scenes with Gaga, whose sensitive performance brings out a humanity in the stereotype behind Cooper’s Maine and allows him to at least somewhat tap into the emotional depth he’s shown off in other, better roles. Surprisingly excellent is the frequently underrated Sam Elliot (The Big Lebowski) as Maine’s much older brother and manager Bobby, who takes the opportunity to do something outside of his typically standard Western roles and serve as an equally testy foil to Cooper. A particularly poignant scene late in the film, where Bobby drives Maine home from rehab, is a testament to both the actors’ strengths, showing a softer side to their storied machismo.
Despite their best efforts, everyone on screen is still outshined by Gaga, who gives the definition of an Oscar worthy performance. Every scene she’s in is electric, and she tackles the musical numbers and dramatic scenes with equally commanding skill. Both facets are on display in one of the best scenes of the year, in which Gaga’s Ally takes the stage with Maine for the first time. Gaga bellows “Shallow”, an original song she wrote for the film (and perhaps the the most obvious contender for Best Original Song ever), holding back tears and barely containing the overwhelmed nervous energy of her character. It’s a powerful and aching sight, one completely sold by Gaga’s commitment to the humanity of her character. It feels as if Gaga is carrying the entire weight of her career on her shoulders in one moment, capturing all the joy, pain, and pressure of her status as one of the world’s most adored and vilified artists. It’s a performance that captures the very essence of her talent; behind all the glitz and glamour, there’s a raw, honest, and human voice asking to be heard.
Maybe it’s because she is so strikingly good, but the rest of the film never really feels worthy of Gaga’s commanding turn. Cooper has some interesting ideas about direction, churning some rather beautiful pops of color and crisp, effectively emotional close-ups. But at times, his amateurishness takes over, from his choice to shoot every concert scene with maddening shaky cam to his lack of restraint when injecting a montage over what should have been an unimpeded final performance from Gaga. He’ll have a long career as a studio man, but his desire to be an auteur seems unrealistic at this point. The script too is lacking the freshness needed to make the film feel essential outside of Gaga’s role. It’s steeped in some pretty tired tropes surrounding the music industry, choosing to tackle the rather old-hat route of criticizing the manufacturing of pop music with some rather obvious narrative choices. One musical number, which clearly supposed to show that Ally has “lost her soul” in the limelight, is itself so painfully obvious in its criticism that it’s borderline laughable. Maine’s drunken behavior and aching soul too feel plucked from a Hallmark movie, serving less as a intelligent take on addiction and depression and more as a rote, Notebook-style plea for disingenuous sympathy from the audience. Combine all this with the celebrity cameos, manly tears, and emotional poster smashing and you have what feels exceedingly like a traditional Hollywood picture, which is not a compliment in this instance.
Ultimately, A Star Is Born lives and dies by Lady Gaga, She gives a commanding, career-defining performance that will stand out as one of the best of the year. It’s one of the most touching and inspired musical film turns in some time, and alone worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded on all sides by a merely so-so film unwilling to to do anything fresh with its premise, leaving a certified star just shy of touching the greatness she so duly deserves.