The main love story in the new version of “A Star Is Born” is the one between Bradley Cooper the director and Bradley Cooper the actor. Few recent movies come to mind in which filmmakers give themselves as many lingering, emotion-milking closeups. At times, the film plays nearly like a feature-length sample reel sent to the Academy for a Best Actor award. Fortunately, there’s much more to this remake, which is more engaging and affecting over all than it is at its most self-regarding moments. But it’s hard to shake the sense of a shift in Cooper’s version of this classic Hollywood story of a man’s star falling while a woman’s ascends, one that emphasizes the self-punishing, self-sacrificing aspects of the male side of the equation. In its depiction of the musician’s self-scourging for the public’s good, it edges into turf occupied lately by “Whiplash.”
Cooper (who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) plays Jackson Maine, a singer-songwriter-guitar hero who plays hard-edged, country-inflected rock in stage shows of an unadorned, down-home openness. He’s also an alcoholic and drug addict (he abuses prescription medication) who, after a show, empties his last bottle in the back of his limo and has his driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg), deliver him to the first bar they find. It turns out to be a drag bar, where a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga) takes her turn onstage. Where the drag performers do lip-synch numbers, Ally sings; Jackson (who goes by Jack) is captivated.
He takes her to another bar—his kind of bar, a “cop bar”—and, after a fight breaks out and Ally punches a man, gets her to an all-night supermarket for a bag of frozen vegetables to ice her bruised knuckles. After a rapturously romantic chat session in the supermarket’s parking lot, Ally sings, first softly, then beltingly. When, at his next show, Jack pulls her onstage with him, they sing a duet of a song that she wrote. The audience goes mad, the video goes viral, and the movie’s title is realized with a suddenness that’s exemplary of the digital age.
Though the movie is filled with detail and runs more than two hours, it’s a drama in a hurry; it packs its dose of emotion and rushes on, leaving a viewer to feel less stoked than milked. The instant connection shared by Jack and Ally (if she has a last name, it doesn’t register) quickly turns romantic. Jack is seen to be newly happy; he drinks less, hardly at all, and his road manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott), who’s also his older brother, says that he hasn’t played so well in a long time.
But there’s trouble in musical paradise: as Ally goes backstage after a triumphant concert appearance with Jack, a prominent producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) pulls her aside and tells her that he can help her make her wildest career dreams come true. She says that she has to talk to Jack—but if she does, that conversation isn’t seen. Ally signs (also offscreen) with Rez—there are no lawyers, no negotiations, no contracts, and, above all, nothing about that great taboo, money—and Rez starts making decisions about her career. He puts her face on a minimalist billboard with the sole legend “Ally,” gets her to change her hair color, saddles her with backup dancers and a choreographed stage routine, for which she spends much time rehearsing, and puts her voice in front of slickly produced tracks that, at first, seem to cramp her style.
There’s an artistic manifesto embedded in Cooper’s version of “A Star Is Born,” and Jack both delivers it and embodies it: the cult of the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist. What Ally sings in the drag club is Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” and, though Jack is captivated by her voice and presence, he soon asks her whether she writes her own songs. She responds that she lacks confidence to do so. In their parking-lot conversation, Jack art-splains that all that matters is having “something to say” and “saying it so people will want to hear” what one has to say. Then she sings her song for him, the one with which he makes her a star.
This is a resolutely retro vision, even if Cooper fills his remake with contemporary touches. The first version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, about an aspiring actress (not a singer), dates from 1937. The next two were synchronized with the musical worlds of their times, and spaced roughly twenty years apart. The one starring Judy Garland, as a jazz-and-standards singer who finds movie stardom in musicals, and James Mason, is from 1954; the next, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, set in the world of rock and pop, is from 1976. At that pace, the next remake should have come in the nineteen-nineties, when the big change in the music business was the rise of hip-hop. But Hollywood wasn’t ready to make that movie—and apparently still isn’t.
Instead, Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has the throwback air of a feature-length “disco sucks” rally, which ends with the grudging and grim resignation to the fact that it’s here to stay. There’s a recurring riff involving Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay), a livery driver and formerly aspiring singer whose idol and role model is Frank Sinatra—and who locates the source of Sinatra’s power not in his pipes but in his personality, in taking the stage and becoming Frank Sinatra. That’s exactly the opposite of what Cooper, in the voice of Jackson, is driving at—and, to make sure that nobody misses it, he delivers the riff frequently, in a variety of forms, as when Jack warns Ally, before an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” “They won’t be listening forever, so just tell them what you want to say.”
In this and other ways, “A Star Is Born” drives home a fantasy version of unfiltered artistic authenticity. Jack has no producer; though he has made some recordings, he doesn’t record in the course of the film, doesn’t discuss it. There are no reporters, no publicity, no interview. Jackson Maine is, in effect, a high-level independent whose relationship to his music and his public is immediate, unmediated—an exposed position that leaves him open to his inspirations, unprotected before his weaknesses and impulses. Jack’s substance-abuse issues are aptly described and presented as a disease, but his willingness and ability to cope with them is viewed as inseparable from his artistic identity and fortunes; so, for that matter, is the impaired hearing and tinnitus from which he suffers. (His unwillingness to take steps to protect his hearing is depicted as a creative decision.)
What Cooper persuasively depicts is the fear factor of stardom—the sense of vulnerability, of a position that’s both powerful and fragile. In a recent profile of him, in the Times, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Cooper expresses his reticence about being profiled, and his guardedness is a mark of wisdom about the process—an awareness that an unguarded phrase can suddenly become the big story in lieu of the movie itself. His direction of “A Star Is Born” is similarly both expressive and retentive; he displays much emotion, but it’s constricted and context-deprived, cut off from ambiguity, resonance, and presence—he’s giving, but only so much and no more, and only exactly what he wants to give. (For instance, concert scenes are done in looming closeups, and one moment, when the stage is seen from behind and overhead, with the whole band and the crowd, is a liberation of the eye and the mind, but it lasts a mere second or so.)
The film’s emotional shorthand works to Cooper’s onscreen advantage and Lady Gaga’s disadvantage. Her singing is dominant, her performance fascinatingly elusive and full of life—she doesn’t so much deliver a single feeling on cue as command the screen and gradually unfold a complex range of emotions. But Cooper’s impatient direction never gives her the screen time to flourish, and the camera seems to cut away from her just as her moments of performance are beginning.
This, too, is in keeping with what Cooper appears to be saying. His subject is the pursuit of self-expression, the sharing of a space of performance in an inherently collaborative art form with a new and reinvigorating artistic collaborator. There’s a moment in which, in her first flush of success, Ally provokes Jack, calling him “jealous.” But the film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.