Here’s something I didn’t even think to expect from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born: to feel so seen — as a gay man, as part of a gay community so long associated with appreciation for megastars in movies bearing this name. Few movies have been remade as many times as this one, and certainly no other comes to mind with the same pedigree of icons featured in its many iterations. Judy Gardland. Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga.
In Bradley Cooper’s telling of the story, we’re treated with a surprisingly queer element: when Cooper’s middle-aged rock star Jackson Maine first meet’s Lady Gaga’s unknown singer Ally, Ally is the one cisgender woman, also singing with her own voice, performing in a drag bar. Among the many drag queens here who pop up a few times over the course of the film is one whose YouTube channel I’ve long subscribed to: Willam Belli. She gets a couple nice gags in to boot, and was a delightful surprise.
So are the entire first two thirds or so of this A Star Is Born, which are, quite simply, spectacular. Watching Jackson and Ally meet and fall in love, as he nudges her into an overnight stardom that quickly overshadows his fading limelight, is enchanting to a truly unexpected degree. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen this story before — this specific story is being told for the fourth time here (some might even argue the fifth, as many felt the “original” A Star Is Born in 1937 ripped off the story of a film called What Price Hollywood from five years prior). Every remake thereafter has been a spectacular showcase for its female lead’s talents: Judy Garland in 1954; Streisand in 1976.
The thing about that 1976 version is . . . it sucked. Streisand’s singing was the only good thing about it. After the first film focused solely on movie stars and their acting careers, then the second turned it into a musical, the ‘76 version turned the characters into rock stars. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is everything Frank Pierson’s version should have been but just wasn’t.
Bradley Cooper is offering us something quite rare in 2018, a story with exceedingly broad appeal, a love story with great singing that wide swaths of audiences who otherwise often cannot agree with each other can get behind. And that singing! Lady Gaga has a set of pipes tailor made for this role. The first time you hear her sing, she’s doing so softly to herself, walking down an alleyway after getting off work, as the movie’s title comes onscreen. And I got chills. Oh and by the way? Bradley Cooper’s a shockingly good singer too. Sure, in vocal ability Lady Gaga’s way out of his league — but Cooper more than holds his own. It’s genuinely impressive.
As is his entire performance, which is sure to get an Oscar nomination, and his winning would be no tragedy. I must admit to some healthy skepticism that he could pull off both directing and performing in this movie — and I could find no faults on either front.
So how about the music itself, then? Honestly, if anything comes close to being disappointing, it’s the music — which is a sad irony. To be fair, the music is good. It’s just not great. There is no iconic power ballad like, say, The Bodyguard’s “I Will Always Love You.” Even Gaga’s number that predictably closes the film, while emotionally affecting, is almost curiously understated. Gaga’s stellar voice elevates every track on which she sings, but I struggle to imagine the soundtrack taking off in line with the inevitable popularity of the movie itself.
Another quibble: the final act sags a bit, the tragic arc of these two lovers’ respective rise and fall lacking the crackling chemistry of the beginning of their relationship. Ally’s pop stardom is meant to showcase a sort of vapidness that belies her true talent, but the lyrics featured in her “hit single” are so truly dumb it’s distracting. Sure, some artists might get a minor hit singing “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” — but a Grammy nomination? It’s painful to see a songwriter of Lady Gaga’s obvious caliber singing such drek, and strains suspension of disbelief.
But! The things that are great about A Star Is Born are just so great — it makes for a genuine crowd pleaser which, beat for beat, hits all the right notes. You could even call this film subtly subversive. What’s not to love about a flawed man who makes terrible mistakes but through it all has eyes only for this one wide-eyed woman, who in turn progressively overcomes a lack of confidence and ambition to showcase awesome talent? A story almost pointedly lacking in sexism, and featuring a seamlessly organic sensibility of inclusion? Which even treats alcoholism and addiction realistically as a disease to be treated without judgment? This movie is both progressive at its heart and uninterested in drawing attention to that fact, unencumbered by ego. Supporting roles by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are played without showiness or vanity.
This is the kind of story where you root for everyone, even though you know some won’t get their shit together. To a person, they’re still worth rooting for. Well, except maybe Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron). He’s kind of a dick.
A Star Is Born in 2018 is a diamond in the rough, a gem of mainstream entertainment in a sea of superhero sewage. It would be impossible to be considered anything close to original, and among the many versions of this film that have existed over the past eight decades, there’s no way it could be considered the best of all of them. (That would indeed be the original 1937 film. Seek it out.) But, it is the best one for those of us living right now. This movie was made for us, and I left the theatre feeling gratitude for it.