“A Star is Born” shouldn’t be good. It’s a campy, celebrity-obsessed quadruple remake with a soap opera plot. But despite the odds and cheesy romantic banter, the film’s newest version is, at times, unflinchingly honest in its retelling.
The plot follows the love story between weary, washed-up country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and talented but unconventional ingenue Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). Maine lifts Campana out of obscurity and into stardom, but then struggles as her budding career rapidly starts to eclipse his own.
This movie easily could have fallen into the same trap as its 1976 predecessor and focused too much on the appeal of stardom, leaving the plot feeling shallow. But the 2018 version isn’t a movie about fame. It’s a movie about music and the people who make it.
While Cooper and Gaga are both strong leads, musician Gaga acts circles around Cooper. Gaga’s character, Ally, is musically electric but deeply insecure, which gives Gaga an interesting dynamic to work with. In the scene where Ally and Jackson first meet in the dressing room of a drag club, it’s clear that Ally is confident on stage dressed in exaggerated costumes, but flinches at the thought of someone seeing her without makeup. Maybe it’s because of her own experiences as a singer, but Gaga makes it clear throughout the movie that Ally is a person first and a singer second.
In contrast, Cooper’s performance can sometimes feel like a caricature. Cooper, who looks like he has been marinating in tanning lotion for the past four years, based Jackson’s character mainly on his friend Eddie Vedder, lead vocalist for American rock band Pearl Jam, and it shows. From his overly gravelly voice to his humble-for-a-famous-person swagger, Cooper sometimes seems like he’s living out a fantasy of playing a rockstar, instead of bringing depth to the character like Gaga does.
Still, Cooper portrays Jackson’s alcoholism with nuance and sensitivity. A former alcoholic himself, Cooper manages to make the viewer empathize with Jackson without excusing the character’s harmful behavior. Jackson is in pain throughout the film, and his pain causes him to lash out at and embarrass Ally both intentionally and unintentionally. He steals her spotlight, calls her ugly and untalented and leaves her feeling abandoned because these are all things he’s feeling himself. But near the end of the film, he gives her an apology which is refreshing in that it allows the stoic, macho male lead to break down, own up to his actions and be completely vulnerable − a rare sight in romantic films.
But in a film centered around music, sound is everything. The film’s main strength is its powerhouse soundtrack. Each song featured in the movie holds its own when removed from the context of the film, and some songs are so poignant that it seems like the movie is a jukebox musical made to fit around the songs, instead of the other way around. The lyric, “It takes a lot to change a man, hell it takes a lot to try. Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” encompasses the theme of the film in a few short lines.
The film, though powerfully acted, loses its punch upon rewatching. For those who know the ending, the film can feel like a drawn out build-up to an unfulfilling conclusion. But the songs are able to convey the film’s message timelessly. That’s why “A Star is Born” is worth seeing once, but the soundtrack is worth listening to on repeat.