Have you ever had a moment so overwhelmingly emotional — chaotically sensory even — that you don’t know what to do when it’s over?
If not, try to imagine one. Because the coming topic is essentially a concert film, imagine your favorite artist/band is playing at a large stadium (for some, maybe just remember your favorite rowdy show). It’s your favorite song and it’s loud; the lights are swirling fast and furious around you, almost hypnotically; the only thing keeping you from realizing how cramped and sweaty you are is your ferocious investment in getting just a little closer to stage, making human contact a necessity.
Now imagine that moment is over, and there’s only silence. Everyone is gone. The lights are out. Do you feel sad that it’s over or happy it was here?
The fourth iteration of the fame fable A Star is Born is a lot like that. It’s a sensory bomb — or rather or chain reaction — that hits with stunning ferocity over the course of its 135-minute run time. It is sumptuous to feel, hear, and see, so much so you swear you could smell and taste it as well. It is packed to bursting with charisma and beauty — you’d swear everyone inside was uncomfortable if they didn’t look so rapturous.
But as with any explosion, there’s an understood reckoning coming. The experience of diving into A Star Is Born is why you paid the admission fee. What follows is what lends it staying power.
“I’ll Always Remember Us This Way”
Jackson Maine — portrayed by director and co-writer Bradley Cooper — is a rock star in the purest sense. His hair is greasy and his face always looks like he just got done playing a show in the middle of the Arizona desert, with its ruddy, sun-beaten quality. His voice is soaked in gin and tar, and his magical charisma comes through whether he’s shredding a guitar solo or softly smiling at the edge of a bar.
But nowhere in A Star Is Born does Maine’s face radiate quite like when he first sees Ally. The down-on-her-luck singer — quite the opposite of the flamboyant pop star that portrays her — is charismatic in the way your best friend might be. She’s the everywoman, struggling somewhere between defiance and acceptance, unsure of her otherworldly gifts because of her physical insecurities.
There doesn’t need to be too much analysis on what happens next. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They write a hit song together, on stage no less. Boom. Movie magic.
Much of the critical analysis surrounding A Star Is Born focuses on the structure. The first 45 minutes are a pulsing, whirling dream. Nothing feels real and almost everything is oversaturated. But while it could feel like too much, Cooper’s gaze is laser-focused on Jack and Ally’s faces, letting each minute and hour tick away in what feels like real time. It all culminates in a scene that will play in Oscar montages for decades.
But from there the film slows down, at least in pacing. Narratively, we’re whisked away to the next steps of Jack and Ally’s life together. First, they’re playing shows together. Suddenly, Ally is approached by an agent. Then she’s got a few hit singles… she’s appearing on SNL… wait, when was she nominated for a Grammy?
This stark approach to interpreting time has been maligned, but there’s an understanding between Cooper and his co-writers, Eric Roth and Will Fetters. Falling in love and achieving your dreams feels like an out-of-body experience. Colors are brighter, sounds are louder; it’s all very atmospheric and separated from what we know of reality. Time slows down.
But real life feels faster and hits harder, even if you’ve been moving at the same speed the whole time. When Ally’s career blossoms and Jack’s starts to fade, you can see him (and her at times) asking, “Why can’t we go back?” There’s no mistaking that A Star Is Born has a lot to say about the lifestyle that comes with unfathomable celebrity, but it’s grounded in normal anxiety. How did we get where are so fast? Is there anything we can do to reclaim the old magic of our youth?
Truthfully, the film’s structure is one of the best things it has going for it. It understands something very fundamental about time and the way we spend it, and isn’t afraid to let it affect the flow. And even when it seems unbearably slow, it’s setting us up for another right hook that comes in the film’s waning minutes.
“We’re Far From the Shallows Now”
While there’s much to praise in the film’s structure, there’s even more to parse in its text. The not-so-subtle meta-narrative that Cooper and Lady Gaga share with their on-screen counterparts could fill the pages of a book, and both give performances that would make that treatment feel worthy.
Cooper is undoubtedly the film’s star, and the film’s narrative spends much of its energy examining his story. The director-star-auteur approach is fraught with possible shortcomings, but Cooper manages to avoid almost all of them. He’s a committed performer as always, and he walks a fine line between rockstar parody and melodramatic sincerity with remarkable poise. He didn’t need a star-making performance as an actor, but this could be one that cements his status in gold.
However, one of Cooper’s more admirable achievements is the way he clears space for the newcomer. Lady Gaga — Stefani Germanotta for those who aren’t into the whole brevity thing — is right in her wheelhouse in a part that allows her to showcase her many talents, namely those of the musical variety.
However, her best moments come in very small moments just on the outskirts of performance: when she nervously walks on-stage and makes glances at Jackson in between lyrics; when he plays a song he wrote for her on the piano, and she watches on with a dewy face; when she’s at home with her father making him and his friends dinner. Gaga has always been known as an over-the-top performer, but she masters the subtleties of Ally’s character when she’s given a chance. She makes the audience forget just who she is — the woman who wore a dress made of raw meat to an awards show.
And it can’t be ignored that the film wouldn’t work quite as well without the chemistry between the two. Gifted musicians they are, and Cooper wisely lets her dominate the stage when they’re together. But when they’re off stage, there’s an intimacy that’s communicated effectively through the quiet of their relationship. They’re two loud, recognizable people seeking to be known on a deeper level. The moments (good and bad), memorable gestures, and callbacks tie us to those magical first 45 minutes, even when the magic fades.
“Nobody Speaks to God These Days”
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The ending of A Star Is Born feels inevitable from the start. There’s a sense that, while this is Hollywood, Jackson and Ally aren’t destined for a Hollywood ending.
When Jackson returns from rehab, we’re given some hope that things can be different. That what we’ve been learning for the entirety of the film — that for one star to rise, another must fall — won’t be true. And even if it is, even Jack can make peace with himself and his new life.
But it’s here that Cooper understands something deeper and more profound about Jack and about our nature as humans. For Jack, music was his savior… until it wasn’t. Then alcohol and drugs were… until they weren’t. Finally, it was Ally. In her, it seemed like his search was over.
But then a star was born. And with all of his functioning saviors stripped away, Jack is left with the same pain from which he’d always run.
Jack’s self-destruction is shown in crippling, agonizing detail throughout the latter half of the movie. We see him embarrass himself and his wife, while alienating the brother he can’t seem to bring any closer than an arm’s length. You get the sense early on that Jack has accepted his fate, and only remains to fight for the sake of Ally. But when presented with the idea that his fading star would always tie her to the earth? There’s no amount of gin or pills that can turn that thought back.
With just minutes remaining in A Star Is Born, Jack’s brother (a standout turn from Sam Elliott) tells Ally that they aren’t to blame for what happened to Jack. He’s responsible for his actions, and they can’t shoulder that weight for him anymore. In a way, he’s right. Jackson Maine spent a lifetime trying to get his head above water, and even when Ally brought him closest to the surface, he still couldn’t find that saving breath.
A Star Is Born – for all its glamorous performances and wondrous melodrama — is a story about a man trying to save himself from the inevitable. It’s a beautiful journey, one that abounds in beauty, sacrifice, love, and all the things that bring us to tears in this life. But its wisest, most provocative statement comes in the moments after the screen cuts to black, when the damage is done. Jackson Maine couldn’t be saved, and suddenly Ally’s newfound stardom feels hollow.
The search for a savior continues, resonating loud as the guitar solos our hero was ripping just a few hours ago. Only now, it’s deafeningly quiet.