There’s a disconnect between what A Star is Born truly is and what it feels like it needs to be. Said disconnect doesn’t hinder the film from delivering moments that sparkle – at every turn, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is gorgeously mounted and compelling, at times even magical – but it does hinder its ability to sustain that magic. As the film wears on, those sparkling moments become fewer and further between, the inevitable result of a screenplay drawn to a sense of loyalty to a familiar, well-worn mystique rather than the actualization of its own.
Since 1937, four different versions of this story have now been told, and this newest reimagining is limited by its fealty to a narrative template first utilized 80 years ago, as if the ghost of William Wellman cast a shadow from which these filmmakers just couldn’t emerge. One can’t walk into a film explicitly titled A Star is Born expecting the wheel to be reinvented; what can be reasonably expected, however, is for the yarn spun from that wheel to take the shape of an evolving narrative.
On the basis of the film’s sterling first act, this version had not just potential but intent to deliver something slightly different, an evolution of this time-tested framework. We’re all familiar with this tale of romance at first blessed and eventually cursed by fame. But Cooper, with co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters, enlivens the soul of the material by truly immersing in the romance itself. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, an old-school rocker on the downward slope from his peak. He’s also a blistering alcoholic, still capable of finishing his sets but swiftly drowning in a sea of gin after he walks off stage. It’s on one of his post-show bar crawls that he first spots Ally (Lady Gaga) moonlighting at a drag club, though she doesn’t need to lip-sync like the other performers. She belts out “La Vie En Rose” with the breathtaking power of…well, Lady Gaga…and just like that, a love story is born.
What follows is a first act of sustained magic, an extended period in which the characters – and the audience – are captured in a kinetic spell of attraction, spurred by the electricity of creative invention, and set to a pulsating musical vibe. As opposed to the regal tragedy of George Cukor, this A Star is Born at first takes on the passionate verve of a Cameron Crowe script, with idealism being challenged by the weight of reality. In this setting, Gaga and Cooper are stunning together, generating a spark that never wavers. The chemistry of their dynamic is palpable – their intimate conversations jump off the screen, their musical performances send shockwaves through the audience. It’s a grand first act that ignites the source material into something unexpectedly vital.
Naturally, any such romantic high must eventually take a dive, and it’s unfortunate that the film dives with it. After spending its first hour coloring outside the lines, A Star is Born spends its remainder erasing those beautiful strokes. As the story takes its inevitable turn towards the dark side of fame, it’s as though Cooper and Co. feel the need to swiftly overcorrect the narrative trajectory, abandoning the thematic flourishes they created before. Whereas the standard template of this story is about the unforgivable Hollywood maelstrom, Cooper has a natural inclination towards thematic notions of shelter from that storm. His Jackson is the most sympathetic version of the character ever presented on screen, and Gaga’s Ally exudes the accepting humanity of one who can save him. These notions of character and theme challenge the classical mold in a vital way, but the rest of the film plays to convention in ways that betray them.
And it’s a clunky betrayal at that. As Ally’s star rises and Jackson spirals further into alcoholism, A Star is Born takes on the feel of an epic, a way-down-we-go travelogue of Hollywood downfall, except it doesn’t seem patient enough to allow the emotional beats to lead the characters down the rabbit hole. Instead, the screenplay jettisons itself from one crucial moment to the next with no room to breathe, an apparent effort to tick off the important narrative boxes while maintaining a studio-respectable running time. We meet Ally as a pure, stripped-down crooner and chart her swift rise to psychedelic pop icon, but we don’t notice a change in her character, nor does the film render a point-of-view on her apparent sell-out. Similarly, Jackson opens the film as a functioning drinker who plays to massive sell-out crowds, but I couldn’t tell you, based on the film, how he eventually finds himself as a hopeless drunk who has lost popularity. All of this leads to a finale that feels forced and wrong, existing for no other reason than the former films dictated it as such.
On the back end, A Star is Born left me feeling cold and confused, and yet its early greatness still swirls in my head. There are moments of magic in this film that will endure far longer than the film itself, and I’m left pondering what might’ve been had it followed its own voice.