When Jackson Maine tells us "It’s the same story, told over and over, forever..." He's talking about music composition, but he might as well be talking about A Star Is Born itself. The classic Hollywood tale first debuted in 1937 and similar stories can be found everywhere from The Simpsons to Guns N' Roses lyrics. However, what was once old can be gloriously reborn again, and that's the case with A Star Is Born in 2018. It's likely to give remakes a good name.
In 1937, film legends William Wellman and David O. Selznick debuted their story of a poor North Dakota farm girl who sets out for Hollywood with supernovas in her eyes. She soon becomes world famous thanks to the help of a famous actor who also marries her. But he has his own demons as well.
Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote, directed, and produced A Star Is Born for 2018, is also its male lead. And he stays true to the spirit of the original while enhancing it in almost every way. This is the rare remake that's better than the original. It takes Wellman and Robert Carson's 1937 script and strips it down to the bare essentials. It's a story about love, redemption, and the unmitigated power of music. You will be moved.
A Star Is Born is grounded by Cooper's talents behind and in front of the camera, but it soars thanks to Lady Gaga. The pop star gives a remarkable performance as Ally, a waitress unsure of her appearance whose talent is undeniable. When she looks Jackson (and us) in the eyes while singing "La Vie en Rose" at a drag bar early in the film, you can feel the magic. The shot, the turn, the music — they're all perfectly executed. Cooper immediately proves himself as a director, and Gaga as an actress. The first act of the film is magnificent.
One common thread throughout every version of A Star Is Born is the echo between the female lead and the actress playing her. For one, they can all sing. Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, and Lady Gaga were all accomplished performers before A Star Is Born. That means they have an innate understanding of the character to begin with. This may be more true with Gaga than any of the others. The world famous, hugely successful pop star has already gone through what Ally experiences in the movie. It's almost as if she's telling her own story. So when Ally looks at Jackson and tells him people always like how she sounds, but not how she looks, you can feel the heartbreak in Gaga's voice. You can sense Stefani Germanotta's own story behind it and it's so meta you want to break down and cry.
Jackson and Ally meet like John Norman and Esther do in 1976's A Star Is Born — Jackson wanders into a random club in a drunken stupor after a show and is mesmerized by the girl he finds onstage. Jackson's a world famous star and Ally knows him, of course, but he surprises her at every turn. As they talk into the morning and get to know one another, it becomes apparent Cooper and Gaga have incredible chemistry, something the past versions sorely lack. Watching these two together is, on a base level, the film's greatest gift. Movie magic isn't something that can be bought or coaxed. It just happens, and you can see it fully on display in this film.
By the time Jackson whisks Ally away on his private jet to his next gig, the movie is already firing on all cylinders. When Jackson urges the shy younger singer onstage to perform her song "The Shallow," you may find yourself wholly uplifted. If you burst into tears of joy or start applauding maniacally, you'll be forgiven. The sequence is so full of life and beauty, it cannot be denied. I can't begin to impart to you how rare scenes like these are — and how difficult they are to make. Directors try for years to accomplish scenes like this and often never do. Cooper has done it in his first film as a director. It's a remarkable thing.
Cooper does have some trouble, however, keeping his movie invincible throughout. The beginning is so good, it's hard to keep up the pace, but the drop off is far from drastic. As the old story unfolds, and Jackson flounders while Ally soars, some timeworn hindrances pop up. One change the remake installs is the addition of a "cool" record producer named Rex (Rafi Gavron) who wants to make Ally a bubblegum pop star and doesn't care a lick what happens to Jackson. This is where the past films struggle as well. As Ally becomes a star (perhaps too fast), the question of whether or not fame is worth it is never really answered.
The price of stardom is one of the themes, and an important one, but A Star Is Born remains a romance above all and is thus immune from philosophical underpinnings. All that really matters is Jackson and Ally and what happens to them. Plus there's an admirable supporting cast (Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, among others), huge concert performances, wild costumes, and the music, my God.
Jackson's plight is a familiar one for many artists and there are shades of Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and others in Cooper's performance. He and Gaga are both immediate Oscar contenders since they sing their own songs and play their own instruments. Like Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) in recent years, Cooper shows up fully formed onscreen as a musician. And you likely expect as much from Lady Gaga. But Ally (who channels Carole King) is not Gaga and her sound is much different. Her musical range fully on display, I expect the pop queen to gain a legion of new fans after this one.
Matthew Libatique’s vivid cinematography and Jay Cassidy's editing help to enhance Cooper's directing as well. This is a big movie with many moving parts so it's even more impressive it works considering the production size. Still, it's the music that people will love and remember most. Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson collaborated on Ally's sound and Cooper worked with Lukas Nelson to find Jackson's hard-charging style. What they've produced is a rare dual threat — a romantic film with killer original music that enhances the narrative instead of defining it. The love story is driven by the music. It's there because of it. Jackson thinks Ally is beautiful, and he thinks that without even seeing her. He just has to hear her voice. Now, that's romance.