Arts movie review

Lady Gaga gives spectacular performance in ‘A Star is Born’

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a modern take on an old-fashioned story

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Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) exchange a flirtatious glance as they write music together.

A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Written by Bradley Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters
Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga
Rated R, Now Playing

With A Star is Born, first-time director Bradley Cooper takes on an ambitious task: bringing a fresh perspective to a story told so many times that it’s no doubt a Hollywood cliché. This fourth remake of a movie by the same name tells the story of Ally (Lady Gaga), a girl with a beautiful voice but a big nose. Jaded by an industry that “likes the way [she] sounds but [doesn’t] like the way [she] looks,” she’s all but given up on making her big break when she meets country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper).

The first third of the film is golden. The first shot begins with Maine as he stumbles, evidently wasted, into a drag club. The camera then zooms out to capture a stunning guest performance of “La Vie en Rose” by Ally, a former waitress there. Afterwards, Maine approaches Ally in the changing room where we see her up-close, coated in extravagant makeup and fake accessories; Maine is having none of it. When he peels off her taped-on eyebrow to reveal a silhouette outline of the real thing beneath it, we know exactly what the theme of movie is. Yet, the sparkling connection between the two locks our eyes to the screen.

The next 20 minutes take us through the raw, beautiful blossoming of Ally and Maine’s love. “I don’t sing my own songs,” Ally says, “I just don’t feel comfortable.” But when Ally and Maine are together, the rest of the world disappears, and the camera captures a sense of absolute security and peace in both of them that we all secretly yearn for. A scene in the parking lot when Ally nervously sings some original song lyrics, baring her true soul to Maine for the first time, is the most powerful moment in the movie. The classic motif “true beauty lies within” continues to resurface, but not obnoxiously, as is the worry with clichés. When Maine asks Ally if he may touch her nose, an insecurity of hers, we wonder: first her eyebrow, now this? But as she blinks slowly, and he runs his finger down her nose in an almost erotic passion, we witness the nervous skepticism in her wide brown eyes slowly fade to complete trust and tranquil determination. When Ally goes on tour with Maine, we see her continue to shed her self-doubts in multiple charming cuts of Ally and Maine singing her original songs together. Everything is perfect for the couple, and we feel it too.

But as Ally ascends to fame in the musical world, Maine quickly begins his downward plummet into the abyss of alcohol and drugs. They are constantly at odds with each other, and the happy perfection of their first moments disappears. Maine’s fate is perhaps expected, yet the resolution of the movie on Ally’s side remains for the audience to interpret.

With Maine’s presence dwindling, he drags Ally down with him, despite her outward successes. An original duet Ally and Maine sing together called “Shallow” serves as a theme song for the movie from the beginning. Maine’s part in the chorus asks: “Tell me something girl, are you happy in this modern world? / Or do you need more? / Is there something that you’re searching for?” Now, both lovers stray from their initial peace and search for “something more.” For Maine, that’s alcohol and drugs. Addiction runs in the family, and thus his fate is perhaps a foregone conclusion based on the movie’s history. Ally, too, gets confused. At a “big break” performance on SNL, she gives into the demands of her producer Rez (who represents the industry) and sings in flashy leggings with backup dancers and the whole sexed-up shebang: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that? / You’re making all my thoughts obscene. / This is not, not like me.” No, it’s not like her at all. In the darkest parts of the movie, superficialities threaten to swallow Ally and make her “shallow.”

But for a movie that initially exudes the theme of “finding one’s true self”, backed by an anthem that preaches “digging beneath shallow exteriors,” the “losing oneself” rising action drags on for surprisingly long. Cooper takes a risk by allowing the darkening plot to spiral on and on until the last few minutes of the movie, where Ally arguably gains back some rawness. Ultimately, it pays off. Each of her achievements, culminating with a visit to the Oscars, feels more superficial than the last, thanks to short choppy shots depicting success after success, each followed by unsatisfying mixed reactions from the characters. We ourselves are confused as to whether we should congratulate her material success or mourn her personal loss, and that’s exactly how Cooper wants us to feel. The alcoholism and drug use, while typical in their effects on Maine’s life and relationships, are portrayed with numbing gravity and intensity.

No doubt the most impressive aspect of A Star is Born is the phenomenal acting performances. Once again, Cooper takes a huge risk, casting Gaga in her first major motion picture as his co-star. Known in the public eye for her provocative behavior and often outrageous appearance (remember the meat dress?), she is in many ways the opposite of Ally, who strives to stay true to her mascara-free self despite setbacks. Ally’s SNL performance in the film, in which she dances and shakes about in her tight bodysuit, is right out of one of Lady Gaga’s real life music videos. At times, the resemblance is uncanny; we have to pinch ourselves to remember that we are watching Ally’s rise to fame, not Gaga’s. That is not to belittle Gaga’s acting performance; her singing is raw and straight from the heart, and the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is unmistakable and wonderfully executed in both directions. For any fourth rendition of a movie to work, the acting must be on point; Gaga’s alluring stage presence and compelling passion saves the film from falling flat. But the more raw and exposed Gaga acts to play Ally’s character so beautifully, the more confused we are. Who is this actress/singer that is able to empathize with Ally so well they become one and the same? And how are these lovely notes flowing from lips that most of us have only heard under heavy auto tune? Gaga’s performance is unquestionably impressive, and her voice is absolutely lovely, yet we can’t help question Cooper’s choice to cast her in this role given the modern pop culture associations our minds make when we hear the name “Lady Gaga.”

Maine’s older brother, played by none other than Sam Elliott, says in the film: “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. That’s it.”

A Star is Born is a beloved Hollywood tune that can be, and has been, sung over and over. But with Gaga’s help, Cooper succeeds in dreaming up a melody we haven’t quite heard before. A Star is Born is a remake made well and acted even better, with a powerful message for anyone who stops to listen.