It is now almost quaint to think of A Star is Born as a signature example of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, and yet that’s exactly the status bestowed upon the showbiz tale by the time Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson provocatively clinched on the poster for the 1976 version. That was the merely the third big-screen iteration of the story (not including any officially unrelated features drawing obvious inspiration). It took them forty years to reach that point. We’re rushing headlong toward our third Joker in a decade’s time.
But A Star is Born still looms large enough that Bradley Cooper’s choice to deliver a new remake as his directorial debut feels like the ultimate combination of opportunism and hubris. Done with any panache whatsoever, the film is almost certain to set cinematic awards bodies swooning, especially in this era in which movies about the entertainment industry (even tangentially) have proven as irresistible to Oscar voters as hefty paydays from Marvel Studios. But then again, staking a claim on such a project means putting oneself on the level of William Wellman and George Cukor (and, less problematically, Frank Pierson), implying that there’s something new to add that eluded those highly skilled predecessors. To begin a directorial career with A Star is Born is to announce a titan of cinematic prowess is entering the gilded premises of filmmaking artistes.
Lest it seem as though I’m revving up the backlash turbine, I should plainly state that Cooper’s film is a strong debut in many respects, demonstrating an sharp eye for visuals and a graceful way with actors, particularly those with a handful or fewer scenes. His overall sense of pacing is iffy enough that large portions of the film drag, but several individual scenes hum with confidence as they play out with deliberate casualness, taking the time to absorb the interactions between characters.
In this new A Star is Born, the main characters are Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rocker playing to cheering arena crowds and soothing his emotional ails with an overabundance of alcohol and pills, and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), a singer who has long since given up on her dreams of a music career. She’s stuck in a crummy job with a verbally abusive manager, but scratches her performing itch by occasionally take the stage at a local drag bar. That where Jackson, stumbling past the bouncer in search of liquor, spots her and immediately becomes enraptured by her talent.
From there, the story proceeds largely in accordance with earlier versions. Jackson takes Ally into his fold of traveling musicians, as both a lover and performer on stage. He’s not the only one alert to her gifts, though. She’s eventually recruited by a producer (Rafi Gavron) intent on transforming her into the next great pop diva, leading to intense conversations about authenticity and helping prod Jackson a little further along on the spiral he’s been riding downward. The more standard version of the story hinges on flaring jealousy, but Jackson’s response is more complicated than that, a snarl of loneliness, personal inadequacy, guilt, and helplessness in the throes of addiction.
Cooper commits fully to the heavy drama of the piece, but it’s decidedly less compelling than the courtship that proceeds it. Across the first third of the film, Cooper develops a dazzling chemistry with Lady Gaga, and she’s at her best when playing a working class young woman whose time with a loving, gruff single father (Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly charming in the role) has given her an instinctive rebellious streak. There are implausibilities aplenty in the screenplay (credited to Cooper, along with Eli Roth and Will Fetters), but Cooper so winningly taps into the story’s fairy tale qualities that the narrative flaws are largely forgivable. When situations grow grim, the diversionary compensation of charm fades away enough to let the manipulations show.
Like a lot of first-time directors, especially movie stars branching out, Cooper puts everything he’s got into A Star is Born. Sometimes that results in distracting motifs or thematic fuss. Mostly, it translates to a work that is a deeply personal expression, no matter how many skips across the water’s surface the stone of a story has taken. Cooper has a lot he wants to say about creativity, celebrity, love, and familial commitment. That his messages sometimes twist in on themselves like paper clips only heightens the sense that his intellect is whirring relentlessly, making a certain amount of thematic indecision a perverse strength of the film. I certainly don’t know why Cooper felt compelled to make this film this way — and he isn’t really talking — but I can see that it was no lark. The one thing Cooper decisively does is erase any question about the need to take A Star is Born through its paces again. For whatever reason, it’s clearly a project he needed to do.