Several years ago, I asked a limo driver in Sydney, Australia which celebrity impressed him the most. Without hesitation, he volunteered Lady Gaga, who was then on her acclaimed Monster Ball Tour. Lady Gaga was reverential when she talked about her fans, and how important they were to her career. No other celebrity, he said, showed more authentic respect and appreciation for their fans. This humility and grounded authenticity may well be the touchstone for her compelling performance in A Star Is Born, earning her a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for best actress (in a movie—drama).
Movie remakes tend to make eyes roll, but the newest “retelling” of A Star is Born is worth watching, and not just because of Lady Gaga’s performance. The movie earned five Golden Globe nominations and is a thoughtful, updated mix of themes from the previous versions. This version, co-written and produced by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper) in his debut as a movie director, serves as a relevant reminder of the toll that substance abuse and addiction takes on human creativity, relationships, and identity. The fact that Lady Gaga and Cooper, who also plays the tarnished rock star Jackson Main, provide compelling performances allows this film to shine despite its flaws.
The general arc of the story is familiar. An aging rock star, in his case Jackson Main (Cooper), discovers a young songwriting and singing talent Ally (Lady Gaga) way off the mainstream tracks in a grungy part of Los Angeles. Main is taken by her talent as well as her innocence. He uses his celebrity platform to coax her onto his stage and expose her talent to world, convinced she will be a star if she is just given a chance. He is right. Literary, “a star is born.”
But Ally’s journey to stardom is not easy, nor is Main’s life in the industry or on the road. Main’s alcohol addiction wreaks havoc on his professional and personal life. Ally gets caught up in his downward spiral. Ally grapples with her love for the man who freely gave her his platform to launch her career, but who is now falling hard and dragging her with him.
Jackson Main, for his part, is too drunk to fully come to grips with his own demons until he nearly topples the career of the woman he loves. In many respects, the 2018 movie borrows more from the 1937 original (which was awarded two Oscars and nominated for six others) than from the 1976 version (which won one Oscar and five Golden Globe Awards), both in the dynamic between the two lovers as well as the darkness of the story’s ending.
Screenwriters Eric Roth, Will Fetters, and Cooper have weaved a sophisticated story that doesn’t shy away from the hard truths about the devastating consequences of addiction, the dilemmas faced by those in their lives, or the vulnerabilities of addicts. Despite the story’s focus addiction and its consequences, the music and live performances are stellar, adding richness to the personal dynamic between the characters. Indeed, Jackson Main comes alive and returns to peak form on stage in the presence of Ally, providing some of the movie’s most touching and poignant scenes. While Main is significantly older than Ally, his world-weary character and its toxic effects on their relationship are wrapped into his addiction, not his physical age or talent as a musician.
The attention to the story’s detail and environment also gives this movie depth. The stage band singing with Jackson Main, for example, doesn’t just play their instruments. They become part of the story as they send encouraging and validating nods and smiles toward Main when Ally is performing. Lady Gaga conveys a genuine sense of awe as she is caught up in the surrealism of the lights, crowds, and attention while watching, and then singing, with a rock star. Meanwhile, the camera never loses its focus on Main, reinforcing his authentic support for Ally’s emerging talent and adulation.
The songs and lyrics are an integral part of the story, most of which were written for this version of the movie and performed by Lady Gaga and Cooper. The hit “Shallow” has been nominated for best song at the Golden Globes. But the musical performances also convey the couple’s sense of wonder, hope, interpersonal conflict, and personal losses, reinforcing key themes of awe, love, and heartache.
A Star is Born tends to move more slowly when Ally and Jackson are off stage, particularly in scenes that feel as if they were lifted with minor tweaks from previous movies or adaptations. Early scenes appear to unnecessarily ground Ally’s character in a hard knock life, serving more as a convenient plot device than a source of real bonding between the characters. Some may also find the romantic story moving too quickly, given Ally’s understandable skepticism of the more famous and entitled rock musician celebrity. Despite these weaknesses, the movie works well on many other levels, bolstered in large part by the excellent acting by the leads as well as supporting cast (including prolific character actor Sam Elliott as Main’s brother and road manager).
All versions of A Star Is Born are rooted in the devastating consequences of substance abuse and addiction, but the Bradley Cooper version takes a more nuanced (or perhaps contemporary) approach. While Jackson Main faces the same personal weaknesses as celebrities of earlier generations, the personal and relationship toll the addiction takes is more layered and sophisticated, making the tragic ending more poignant. The consequences of his behavior are firmly rooted in the choices he makes, for better or for ill. This is particularly evident when Main’s emotional fragility is exposed at his lowest point. This approach to addiction was also reportedly one reason Lady Gaga was drawn to the role of Ally.
Overall, A Star Is Born is worth watching for the compelling performances by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, the strength of the music, and the performances that knit the story together. The chemistry between Cooper and Lady Gaga is undeniable, and this helps the film to rise above previous versions while giving it a fresh, contemporary relevance.
For the record, A Star Is Born’s Golden Globe nominations are for best movie (drama), best actress (drama), best actor (drama), best director, and best original song (“Shallow”). It should be a strong contender in all its categories even if it falls short of winning.
Samuel R. Staley is Research Fellow and film critic at the Independent Institute.