“It’s the same story told over and over again,” says Sam Elliott’s character toward the end of Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born.
He’s talking about the form of popular music, whose 12 bars inspire endless variations on a shared structure. He could also be talking about A Star is Born itself, Hollywood’s grim, self-critical appraisal of the vagaries of celebrity — first filmed by William A. Wellman in 1937, then by George Cukor in 1954 and by Frank Pierson in 1976. Sometimes the protagonists are actors in the Darwinian movie business; sometimes they’re musicians navigating the rock industry’s stratospheric rises and precipitous falls. Quality control varies from remake to remake, but nobody has dared to alter the plot, with its elliptical ironies and inevitable tragedies. As Zeppelin said, the song remains the same.
So why do we need another rendition — another cover version? Because in the hands of an assured director, the story can feel urgent again. Cooper, in his first time behind the camera, has updated its time-tested themes for the music, mores and milieu of the 21st century. This is a Star is Born for the airbrushed, PhotoShopped, AutoTuned Aughts, where fame is measured in YouTube page views and where humiliations go viral faster than Zika in the Amazon.
Within 10 screen minutes, the central characters meet, thanks to an alcoholics’ serendipity. Fresh off his latest gig, rock bandleader Jackson Maine — still filling amphitheaters but suffering from tinnitus and, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, aching in the places where he used to play — demands his driver stop at a bar downtown so he can get customarily knackered. That’s where he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a server and amateur singer, whose charismatic interpretation of “La Vie en Rose” captures his attention. He’s invited backstage. It’s a drag bar, and Jackson is acutely out of his element among the broad personalities, pasted eyebrows and detachable breasts. But he knows a diamond in the rough when he hears one — and sees one.
The two singers keep the night alive and are soon thrust into disarming intimacies. She reveals that she’s a songwriter but is too timid to perform her own material. He wants to change that. He invites her on tour, calls her onstage in front of thousands of people, and the cycle begins: They fall in love, she rockets to stardom, and he begins to recede into the bottom of a bottle and a fading career of corporate fundraisers and session gigs.
This shifting power dynamic manifests In Cooper’s direction, and in Matthew Libatique’s merciless mise-en-scène — first, at one of Jackson’s concerts, in which Ally’s head on a JumboTron dwarfs his small figure onstage, then when her visage on a billboard towers over Jackson and the entire city. By the time she accepts her Grammy Award for Best New Artist, Ally literally has to step over the body of her husband and mentor, piss-drunk and bedraggled on the steps leading to the stage. (The ruination of the awards speech is a cruel but necessary turning point in every Star is Born adaptation, and Cooper’s version is especially humiliating.)
Of all the remakes, I’ve loved Cukor’s the most, and I probably still do, for its sheer, aching pathos. But Cooper’s take, with its jaundiced gaze at the business that made his co-star famous, is right up there. As soon as she is discovered by a ravenous music producer (Rafi Gavron), Ally’s look and music are transformed, from authentic and soulful to garish and synthetic. Seemingly overnight, an artist becomes a packaged product, shaking her ass on Saturday Night Live, but it’s apparently what the people want.
Which brings us to Lady Gaga, who, one imagines, can relate to her character. A singer with an art-school background, plucked from obscurity, costumed in pop-diva frippery, and instantly elevated to a brand, she became all but inseparable from her persona. It wasn’t until her 2016 release Joanne that the tailored artifice acquiesced to something like what the real Gaga looks and sounds like. Her performance in A Star is Born thrives on this tension, and it inspires her best work in front of a camera. If her acting debut in American Horror Story was all sexy superficiality, her turn here is vulnerable, contemplative, inward-looking, and still buoyed by a nonprofessional actor’s absence of technique. She’s so genuine we never see the gears moving.
The same can be said for Cooper in his 38th film. His Jackson is a devastating embodiment of the demons of addiction, the jealous heart, the bruised ego, the jeopardized legacy. It’s a decline marked by subtle gestures and a matter-of-fact acceptance that only makes the plot’s tragic machinations all the more crushing. Just as this role hits close to home for Gaga, if and when Cooper himself faces the reality of irrelevance in the predatory marketplace of showbiz, he’s made his own cautionary tale to set him aright.
A STAR IS BORN. Director: Bradley Cooper; Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron; Distributor: Warner Bros.; Rating: R; Now playing at most area theaters.