It's the 2018 equivalent of Barbra Streisand singing in a dive bar clad in suspenders — a normal girl, who despite her talent, is very much like the rest of us. Of course, she's not. Like her A Star Is Born predecessors, Ally has that thing, that ineffable quality that makes her rise above the normals and into the stratosphere of stardom.
Bradley Cooper's directorial debut certainly takes cues from its three previous namesakes (including his character's last name, a tribute to Norman Maine, the male lead in the original movie), but still feels distinctly like its own film.
Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a self-destructive, alcoholic country rock star who has seen better days. One night, drunk after a show, he stumbles into the first bar he can find to get a fix. It's a drag bar (a nice nod to the gay fandom that has developed around the franchise, and its icons), and there amid, fake bosoms and dramatic wigs, he discovers Ally, belting out a peculiarly seductive version of Edith Piaf's “La Vie en Rose." Instantly mesmerised, both by her and her talent, he asks her out. At this point, it would be fair to ask why she'd ever accept. Jackson can barely walk, slurs his words, and has already asked to remove one of her stick-on eyebrows. And yet, he's handsome, and weathered, and endearing in the way that damaged men are, until they aren't. She says yes, and so begins a love affair that paves the way for her success, and keeps his demons at bay — for a while, at least.
Cooper, who also co-wrote the script Eric Roth and Will Fetters, is a skilful director. He keeps scenes light when they need to be, and nails the meet-cute between Ally and Jackson (the two have crackling chemistry), which makes the first half of the film dance along with zest. But he also knows how to build intensity and tension to the near-breaking point, only to let it all crash down in a cathartic release. Case-in-point: That famous scene from the trailer in which Jackson drags Ally onstage for the first time. You may think you know that scene. You may have memorised that scene. But trust me, you haven't experienced that scene until you're on the edge of your seat with tears in your eyes as Gaga starts to belt out the chorus of “The Shallow.” It's a magical moment when music and film merge to form some kind of transcendental, mesmerising synergy. The movie never quite gets that good again, but it doesn't matter. In that short burst, you've witnessed the birth of a supernova.
The female lead in A Star Is Born is a role that's particularly difficult to cast. She needs to be believable as a real person living in the world, waiting to be discovered and dreaming big. But she also needs to be larger than life, especially onstage. Denuded of her usual theatrical artifice, Gaga more than exceeds those expectations, delivering a performance that's raw and passionate, but also sweet. She's no pushover, however. Unlike the previous iterations of her character, Ally doesn't apologise for Jackson's drinking, or her success eclipsing his own. She challenges him on his behaviour, setting lines that he undoubtedly crosses, eventually culminating in a brutal confrontation that ends with him viciously calling her ugly, preying on what he knows to be her greatest insecurity.
Ally is specifically sensitive about her nose, a feature she's been told is too big and too bold to ever make it. But Jackson loves her nose, and Cooper makes that clear in the way he shoots her. The camera close ups on Ally are loving, gentle, and sensual, a gaze that's meant to highlight her talent and beauty in the most positive way possible. How dare agents diss her nose? It's perfect! She's perfect!
This emphasis on natural beauty and authentic talent is ultimately the movie's driving narrative. Jackson isn't jealous of Ally's success — he wants her to be great at what she does. What irks him is the way the music industry commercialises her, changing her to fit the mould rather than adapting to her specific energy. And so he watches as she dyes her hair, changes her clothes, adopts long, claw-like nails, and appears on Saturday Night Live to sing an ode to hot male asses. This is actually where the film loses steam. The commentary on how we force famous women to conform and manufacture a palatable persona is a valid one. But the problem is that we only know how Jackson feels about it. And yes, he hates it, in the way that so-called "authentic" men do — especially since they're more often afforded the opportunity to remain true to their pre-frame selves. But without knowing how Ally perceives this shift, and whether she's at all had a say in it, it all comes off as mansplain-y — yet another man declaring that he’s going to tell us about art.
Ultimately though, A Star Is Born is a resounding success. The concert scenes are particularly impressive, shot in a style that recalls the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter. The camera is on stage, behind the performers, looking out at the crowd — and then it zooms in on their movements, their gestures. It's intimate, and sweaty, and loud. This is a movie about people, but it's also a movie about music, and that's made evident by the wall of sound that washes over you as you watch Ally and Jackson bearing their hearts and souls for an audience.
The attention to detail is apparent, from the brilliant casting of Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's livery driver father who has always pushed her towards the spotlight, and Sam Elliott as Jackson's older brother and manager, with dashed dreams of fame of his own (in fact, Jackson's voice is based off Elliott’s, a fact that gets alluded to in a meta moment where he accuses his little brother of stealing his voice), to the blue and red lighting hues that recall the 1954 George Cukor musical.
Cooper and Gaga had a high bar to clear, and their film soars.