Note: This is a re-post of our A Star Is Born review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in wide release.
Over the past weekend, I made a point to familiarize myself with the other remakes of 1937’s A Star Is Born—1954’s version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and 1976’s version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. With his directorial debut, co-writer/actor/co-producer/co-songwriter/director Bradley Cooper has surpassed those efforts by seizing on their best elements and retuning them for 2018. Although the beats will be familiar to anyone who has seen a previous version of A Star Is Born, Cooper manages to make the story his own by crafting a two-hander resting on his tragic character and a stunning performance from co-star Lady Gaga. Even when the movie occasionally goes off key or becomes a little too familiar, Cooper and Gaga always manage to bring it back to an electrifying note.
Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a rock star on the decline. He can still play well and put on a show, but alcoholism, pill popping, and his growing tinnitus are taking their toll. One night after a show and needing a drink, he wanders into a drag bar where he sees Ally (Gaga)—who’s so good at singing that the drag queens let her take the stage even though she’s a woman—performing. He’s immediately taken with her and wants to encourage her talent as a singer and songwriter. As their relationship deepens, Ally’s star begins to rise as Jackson’s fades, bringing new complications to their romance.
Cooper’s A Star Is Born has a myriad of advantages over its predecessors by making plenty of smart changes along the way. For example, in the other remakes, the Maine character is already in decline, and the audience never really gets a sense of his talent. Here, he can still play, and it lets us feel the tragedy of what’s being lost to the character’s alcoholism and depression. Other changes are less surprising, like making Ally (who goes by Esther/Vicki in previous versions) more independent and combative. It’s an expected change, but also one that’s trickier due to the inherent complications of the story, namely how to make Ally her own woman while still having her success partially due to Maine’s benevolence.
Cooper and co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters wisely seize upon the work process as a way of making Ally’s success more than just being lucky enough to meet Jackson, and by showing the two as collaborators, their relationship has depth and texture (it also doesn’t hurt that Cooper and Gaga have wonderful chemistry together). You can see that they’re both passionate about the work, and that while fame can be a wedge, the love for making music together and creating art, even if it’s stuff for a Top 40 station, is a real passion. The music industry is a necessary evil of sorts, but Jackson and Ally keep trying to make the best of it.
Like the 1954 version (and not so much the 1976 version), 2018’s A Star Is Born cares deeply about both leads rather than giving into the temptation to follow one to stardom and the other to despair. The first act could stand as a glorious short film on its own with how much Cooper is able to wring out of this relationship and where these two characters are headed. The confidence of his direction is astounding, especially in how he doesn’t try to steal the film and make it about Jackson or simply hide and give it over to Ally. The movie really is two intertwined stories, and Cooper makes them work together seamlessly.
However, credit must be given to Gaga for her phenomenal performance. It’s not easy to follow in the footsteps of luminaries like Garland and Streisand, and yet Ally feels like her own character from the very beginning. She’s not a lump of clay for Jackson to mold, and her insecurities feel like they’re coming from someplace real rather than something contrived so that Jackson can find a diamond in the rough. Gaga, a pop superstar herself, is no stranger to Ally’s journey, but it doesn’t feel like an autobiographical riff or running to what’s personally familiar. She’s at turns strong, determined, vulnerable, brave, and humble, and it’s a joy watching her play this character and perform the terrific songs.
Some may find A Star Is Born a bit derivative, which isn’t necessarily unfair. After all, it’s the third remake of a movie that first came out back in 1937. And yet to dismiss it as such would be to miss all the terrific little touches that Cooper brings to his movie. He’s got better songs. He’s got a tighter script. He knows how to service both lead characters. He’s even got a fantastic ensemble with some really touching supporting performances from Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, and Andrew Dice Clay. But the beating heart is the romance between Jackson and Ally that feels like it’s using music as something real and not just an entertainment arena where the characters dwell. Even when the film starts to meander a bit in its third act, or when you get an awkward scene like Jackson explaining why his voice sounds like Sam Elliott, the film always returns to its beautiful melody, and it’s one you’ll be humming long after the credits roll.
A Star Is Born is now playing.