Review: ‘A Star is Born’ is a sparkling, devastating love story

by Jordan McDonald | 10/2/18 2:05am

Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, and featuring pop supernova Lady Gaga, 2018’s “A Star is Born,” a remake of William Wellman’s 1937 film of the same name, breathes new life into the music drama genre.

Telling the story of Jackson Maine (Cooper), a hardened rock musician from Arizona, and Ally (Gaga), a gifted yet unknown performer, “A Star is Born” offers a deep emotional dive into the inner workings of the music industry, the fleeting nature of fame and the limits of love. Exploring issues like addiction, suicide, grief and the deterioration of one’s health, it is remarkable that the film manages to keep a buoyant spirit, but it is able to do so thanks to the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper.

Their potential as an on-screen couple gives the film an infectious kinetic energy. As Jack and Ally rise and fall, their passion for each other and their crafts anchor them to the world of the movie. Faced with the decline of his musical career as he witnesses the ascent of another’s, Jack must reckon with his past in order to determine his future. Ally, on the other hand, must negotiate the terms of her impending success and her tendency to run from the spotlight. In the beginning, Gaga and Cooper must build the film up together, but, by the end, it is clear that this is Gaga’s show to steal.

The movie opens with Jack, an alcoholic singer and guitarist, retreating into his hat and a bottle of alcohol shortly after a stadium performance. It is soon revealed that Jack is struggling to overcome a troubled childhood. Born in Arizona to a teen mother who died during childbirth, Jack and his older brother were raised by their alcoholic father, who died when Jack was 13. With extra bass in his voice, a full beard and a Southwestern twang, Cooper embodies Jack with care and attention to detail. A man overwhelmed by trauma and the worsening effect of tinnitus — a condition that causes intense ringing in one’s ears — Jack turns to music to block out the world, but he is forced to confront years later the fact that muting his ghosts has not made them disappear.

In comes Ally, a remarkably talented singer-songwriter stuck working in a hotel kitchen when she meets Jack. Stripped of her elaborate signature costumes and stage makeup, Gaga emerges as Ally and embodies the character with humor, tenacity and strength. At work and at home, where Ally lives with her father, she is deeply unfulfilled and counts the days until her next night club performance. Having earned the respect of the drag queens at a local bar, portrayed by notable queens such as Shangela of “Rupaul’s Drag Race,” Ally takes the stage on weeknights after work. Performing “La Vie en Rose,” Ally the performer is introduced as a sexy and powerful entertainer in stark contrast to the woman with whom we begin the film. Stopping in the bar for a drink, Jack happens upon Ally during her performance and finds himself awestruck. Intent on getting to know the woman behind the amazing show, Jack goes backstage to meet Ally, and both of their lives are changed exponentially as a response.

Wide-eyed and hungry, Ally loves to sing and write songs, but has had her dreams defeated by industry representatives who claim she does not have the “look” to be a star. Jack begs to differ; he thinks she’s a star in the making and pulls her into his nationwide tour to sing with him. Rejecting the doctor’s orders to begin wearing hearing aids, Jack gradually suffers from hearing loss, which he drowns out with alcohol and prescription pills which begin to affect his performances. But with Ally at his side, the best of his talent is brought forth for the tour’s second leg. Awed by her unique voice and potential at the decline of his career and health, Jack must grapple with his growing feelings for Ally while navigating addiction, a problem he fails at hiding from her.

Gaining popularity from tour videos, Ally soon becomes a hot commodity in the recording industry and begins fielding offers for singles, albums and touring. Turning away from his dissolving music career, Jack becomes immersed in his relationship with Ally and proposes. Impulsive and passionate, the two artists soon marry and must face the trials, tribulations and demons that have always haunted them.

“A Star is Born” is unapologetic about its function as a love story, but what is most compelling about the film’s interest in love is its understanding of its limitations. Though Ally and Jack love each other, the film does not suggest that their affection will be enough to heal their respective wounds. Together, Cooper and Gaga deliver full-bodied performances that make Ally and Jack’s love believable, heart-wrenching and exciting.

While the film will not be in theaters until Oct. 5, the early release of the movie’s single, “Shallow,” provides a good primer for the film’s atmosphere and energy. Thunderous and sweet, the song is offered up in the film as one of Ally’s original songs that she shares with Jack, and which they later perform in an enticing duet that mirrors the essence of the movie’s message. “A Star is Born” sets out to illustrate the sometimes-gruesome end of stardom for stars who do not fade gracefully into the past. Where Jack is concerned, the stakes are particularly high for bowing out, as Ally’s future hangs in the balance. Carrying the emotional weight of these transitional periods in life, the film also captures the high energy of a career on incline and the grief of watching your light go out. “A Star is Born” is a reminder that in life and in music, the old must go to make space for the new.