A star is born about 10 minutes into Bradley Cooper’s new film. Desperate for a drink, musician Jackson Maine walks into a drag bar and watches as a waitress named Ally performs “La Vie En Rose.” Ally’s performance is electric, and Jackson quickly becomes enamored of her. He endeavors to make her talents evident to a larger audience. Soon, Ally is singing her own songs at Jackson’s concerts. She becomes a YouTube sensation, makes a record and wins international acclaim. She also falls in love with Jackson, but her newfound fame only complicates their relationship. While Ally ascends to new heights, Jackson, addled by alcohol and drugs, sees his career prospects plummet.
The story of “A Star Is Born” has served as the foundation for four successful films. Yet, Cooper’s interpretation of this timeworn tale differs from earlier iterations. While previous versions celebrated the ingénue’s emergence from obscurity, Cooper critiques show business. Yet, while he calls attention to the superficiality of stardom, he also finds the facile qualities of the subject fascinating.
As she sings in the dingy drag bar, Ally has little idea of the downsides of celebrity. She dreams of becoming renowned, and so she accepts every opportunity that Jackson offers. Even those who are not as talented as Ally seek adulation. Ally’s father is currently a chauffeur, but he still likes to tell people he could have been more famous than Frank Sinatra. Jackson’s older brother never got his big break as a singer, but he couldn’t leave the music industry behind. Therefore, he works tirelessly as Jackson’s manager.
What Ally and the others fail to understand is that show business is essentially artificial. Even Jackson, who has been a star for years, has trouble comprehending the implications of this fact. He keeps telling Ally and his associates that every musician should “have something to say,” but how do you convey anything meaningful in a medium that is skin-deep? In trying to say something, Jackson has developed a host of hearing problems, alcoholism and an addiction to drugs. As he tries to make Ally’s opinions apparent to an audience, he must bear the consequences of his Herculean effort.
Cooper is far from the first artist to comment on the shallowness of a celebrity’s work. Andy Warhol went so far as to assert that “if you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Perhaps there is nothing behind Warhol’s images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or Marilyn Monroe. Yet, thousands of viewers contemplate the soup cans at the Museum of Modern Art each year, and Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn” has become a symbol of 20th-century disaster and grief. Warhol understood that the surface could be compelling on its own.
Likewise, Cooper’s achievement in “A Star Is Born” is his careful study of characters who value the veneer of fame. At first, Ally worries that by becoming famous, she will lose her raw talent. Even as she voices this concern, however, she accepts the advice of Jackson and her manager. She refines her singing style and changes her image. Ally’s transformation from nobody to somebody could be chronicled through her costume changes. She grows more glamorous as the film progresses.
Lady Gaga’s performance elucidates why Ally chooses glamour over genuineness. Ally’s rendition of “Why Did You Do That?” on Saturday Night Live is not nearly as effective as her earlier presentation of “La Vie en Rose.” Yet, only 20 people heard Ally sing Edith Piaf. Millions are cheering as Ally croons, “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why you come around me with an ass like that?” These lyrics are not profound, but Ally is driven to perform. Lady Gaga expresses this irrepressible desire by dominating every frame of the film. When Cooper focuses on her face, it is so rife with emotion that it is impossible to look away. Gaga makes Ally’s position tenable — it’s worth performing tired tunes if more people have a chance to admire her. Her songs become less and less artistic, but she turns into an artist of artifice.
As Jackson, Cooper is similarly captivating. Perhaps the most haunting scene in the film occurs when Jackson is released from rehab. His older brother picks him up, and as they drive home, Jackson explains to his brother that he didn’t become an addict because of him. Jackson’s train of thought is difficult to understand, and at one point, Jackson himself becomes confused. He just stops talking, and there is dead silence in the car. Uneasily, they stare at each other. As an actor, Cooper doesn’t have to say anything because saying nothing is powerful enough. As a director, Cooper doesn’t make you contemplate what these personages are thinking because the moment is transfixing in and of itself.
Cooper manages to make the most maudlin moments in the movie mesmerizing. He genuinely believes in the material, and he knows that the performances of the leads and the stellar supporting cast will make it shine. He advances his vision of stardom with dogged determination. Therefore, even as his characters struggle to find something to say, Cooper brings a fresh perspective to this familiar story.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.