It’s only fitting that the cyclical nature of stardom mirrors the real-life reproductions of one of Hollywood’s most enduring fables – A Star Is Born. The original 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March was itself inspired by George Cukor’s 1932 classic What Price Hollywood? Subsequently, and most famously, the film was reborn as a beloved 1954 musical starring the great Judy Garland (we wrote about her iconic performance here) and James Mason. Over two decades later, it was once again remade as a 1976 rock musical (which wasn’t as well-received as it’s predecessors) with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
The reason A Star Is Born is so ripe for reinvention is baked into its story’s DNA. The details and genres vary, but through it all, it remains a romantic tragedy about a fading male star discovering, and falling in love with, a rising female talent. As he helps her career ascend to fairy tale heights, his career dramatically declines, wasted away due to addiction and excess. The stresses of success and reversal of fortunes can upend a relationship in many ways, especially when the fragile male ego is involved. Generosity and love give way to insecurity and envy, sprillaing from selfless to self-destructive as both parties lose themselves.
As much as it’s a powerful romance, and a commentary on the music industry, it’s also a story of gender dynamics. Which is why A Star Is Born can feel so fresh every 20 or 30 years, exploring new facets as society evolves. This newest remake might actually be the best of the bunch, simply because this take offers us the most nuanced version of the story yet. 2018’s A Star Is Born soars higher and goes darker, immersing us in the goosebump-inducing moments of a concert film (shot on location at Glastonbury and Coachella) while still capturing the emotional intimacy of the couple’s whirlwind honeymoon and pernicious heartbreak.
Bradley Cooper is clearly an accomplished actor, and Lady Gaga is obviously a wonderful singer – but those aren’t the answers a film like this seeks. The real questions are: “Is Bradley Cooper a competent director?” and “Can Lady Gaga act?” To put it simply, both first-timers aren’t merely good – they’re shockingly great. Making your directorial debut while simultaneously co-writing, singing and starring is no small feat, and Cooper proves to be tremendous in all respects. His turn as deteriorating country rock star Jackson Maine is raw-nerved, charming and painfully affecting – but it’s his work behind the camera that’s awe-inspiring.
(* Bradley Cooper got his start on a spy series called Alias, so it’s nice to see him cast so many of his old Alias co-stars in supporting roles. Where’s Jennifer Garner though?)
His stage sequences are particularly electrifying, often putting the audience in the shoes of both leads as they perform in front thousands upon thousands of screaming fans. This combination of excellent music and adrenaline-fueled expression offer more pure exhilaration than any superhero action set-piece can muster. It’s enough to make even the most cynical cinephile (like this critic) get lost in the magic of movies once again. Films that can repeatedly wallop you with grandiose emotions (while still feeling realistic and grounded) such as this are exceedingly rare, which is why Cooper’s A Star Is Born should be thoroughly treasured.
But beyond the big moments, the meat of A Star Is Born relies upon Cooper and Gaga’s abundant chemistry and amazing performances. Although Lady Gaga has done some good acting work on TV prior to this, her big-screen debut is a revelation. Her character Ally’s rise from unknown singer-songwriter to pop superstar is fairly archetypical, which is why it’s so important that we feel what she feels every step of the way. Lady Gaga’s vulnerable, sincere performance makes a well-trodden arc feel like a first-time experience. And naturally, when the film draws upon her breathtaking vocals, A Star Is Born becomes pure magic.
(** Many would point to her Golden Globe-winning role in American Horror Story: Hotel, but Lady Gaga’s first TV appearance was in The Sopranos’ season 3 episode “The Telltale Moozadell”. She was only 15 at the time, long before her music career began.)
If we were to nitpick, A Star Is Born does suffer from minor pacing issues. First-time filmmakers are often too precious with their work, and an objective editor could have easily trimmed 10 to 15 minutes. At 135 minutes, this film is indeed a tad long, but when so much of it is such a triumph, this is a very minor complaint. A Star Is Born is an immortal showbiz melodrama that’s bound to be remade again and again – but for now this remarkable update will make you sing, swoon and sob. In fact, we predict that this will be major contender for the 2019 Oscars, with nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song (among others) likely locked-up.