I really, really wanted to fall in love with ‘A Star is Born.’ Every time I saw the trailer, it gave me chills. When the song ‘Shallow’ was available on Spotify, I played it over and over. But when ‘A Star is Born’ ended I wasn’t crying, and I wanted to cry. I wanted to be overcome with emotions the way I was with the trailer. But I was surrounded by people crying. They synched in to something that I didn’t.
The thing about ‘A Star is Born’ is that it’s not so much as a story about two people as it is a fairy tale, a cautionary one, about fame and stardom and depression and addiction. As director and star, Bradley Cooper brings the camera in really close with all of his performers — so close that you could almost see right into them. He substitutes backstory and a living, breathing world in exchange for intimacy.
The film is a remake of the 1937 film of the same name, which spawned two more remakes before this version with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I haven’t seen any of the other films but have read that the stories run the same: a seasoned musician, Jackson Maine, discovers a talented singer and songwriter, Ally, who has all but given up hopes of entering the music industry after being rejected countless times because of the way she looks. They fall in love and he gives her an opportunity to become the star he sees and the star that she has always dreamed about becoming. But as she climbs towards success, Jackson Maine’s alcoholism and addiction sends him into a downward spiral.
‘A Star is Born’ is a love story at its core even though it also makes uncommitted jabs at commercialism and integrity. It opens with Ally’s insecurities about the way she looks and counters this with the one person seeing all of her, the beauty of her. But it’s not about appearances either. Because it’s also about Jackson Maine’s alcoholism and addiction, a star in transition from filling out concert arenas to falling out of glory.
What kept me from fully committing to the narrative is due to how much of these character’s lives have been removed from the story. At two hours and fifteen minutes, the movie makes full dramatic jumps to focus solely on their love story and the challenges it faces as their career trajectories run opposite of each other. Their backstories, and the world around them barely intrude into their arc.
It’s Cooper’s direction, the hundreds of extreme close-ups of Jackson and Ally, of Jackson’s brother Bobby (played by Sam Elliott) and his best friend Noodles (played by Dave Chappelle). He substitutes narrative with intimacy, bringing the raw emotions up close for the audience to drink in. There’s no escape from the vulnerability that is displayed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. With the cinema screen completely covered by their features, there is no place to hide and we can see all the emotions running through these actors.
It’s an acting feat, to perform without any place to hide, but the cast is up for the challenge. It’s powerful stuff. But maybe I’m greedy because I wanted to know more about these characters. Instead, we are brought into the whirlwind rise of Ally as a pop star and Jackson Maine’s decline. There’s so much plot pushing them away from each other and while we believe in their love that holds them together and informs their decision, I felt distanced from them.
But maybe that’s the point. As beautiful as many of the songs are in the soundtrack, it mirrors the emotions of the film. It’s beautiful but we don’t really know where the songs come from except for two songs that are explained. Maybe we are meant to be so far removed from these stars. We are only ever really privy to the personal lives of these celebrities through articles and social media. Maybe the distance and the sparse, hollow narrative is meant to approximate how close we can ever truly be to people whose lives are lived so largely.
There’s a lot of great work in ‘A Star is Born.’ Like I said, everyone was crying around me. There are golden moments when you are watching the film and you are seeing Jackson Maine and Ally and not Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Maybe me looking and wanting more is part of the experience. Maybe stars are born from the very little that we know, the bits that we are allowed to see, and we fill up the spaces.
What we know is that the love is true, the talent is there for all of us to see in all its glory, and with all of that comes the challenges and hardships. We see the effect, but we never really understand the minutiae.
‘A Star is Born’ is a fairy tale, for sure, and it is going to move a lot of people with its unapologetic intimacy. The acting is splendid, the direction sharp, the music gorgeous. This is a sure contender come award season.
'A Star is Born' opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday, October 10, 2018.