The story is open-ended. The characters are a little ambiguous. Everything about Bradley Cooper’s difficult, darkly effective recording industry reboot of “A Star Is Born” is open to interpretation and deciphering.
His first effort as a writer and director is imperfect but impressive and full of interesting choices. It reinterprets the classic story of doomed love between a famous, self-destructive man in a downward spiral and a talented young woman who eclipses his success. It doesn’t express itself clearly every moment along the way, but neither does a ballad. If it was fully rational, it wouldn’t be music.
This is also a savvy, cynical commentary on corporate merchandising and a canny look at the present cultural moment, an era when everyone has a “personal brand” that they vigorously market nonstop. It explores Hollywood’s destructive marketing of prefabricated fame in terms subtler and deeper than tabloid headlines and soap opera drama. Cooper clearly has much to say, and doesn’t quickly give the game away.
The film doesn’t follow plot structure strongly — these stars exist in a complicated constellation — which leads to some narrative slips. Its center is a romance between celebrated folk-rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper, who sings surprisingly well) and a waitress with undiscovered musical talent, Ally (Lady Gaga, who acts like a gifted natural).
They meet by accident at a drag bar where Jackson, a functional alcoholic at the twilight of his career, orders his chauffeur to stop so he can have a few after-performance drinks. Onstage, Ally’s strappy black dress isn’t as impressive as the other performers’ wardrobes, but her voice is in an entirely different league. Her sultry “La Vie en Rose” is so magnetic that it’s obvious why she’s the club’s beloved pet. With huge ability and little confidence, she’s good enough as a singer and songwriter to renew Jackson’s faith in his craft.
Though Jackson is disillusioned about the musical-industrial complex — he has the face of a man who has been hurt — he recognizes Ally as an unpolished gem. He introduces her to his career, and his life, because he finds her alluring, wants to fulfill his dreams for her and sees her as his muse. She is disbelieving, then quizzical, then enraptured. In short order, they are both collaborators and lovers, a honeymoon period when he is thrilled as her career moves ahead. He pulls his reluctant protégée on stage at huge concerts and music fairs (impressively shot at massive live events) for duets that sound like love feels.
We should all be so lucky, but luck is fleeting. As most artists do, Ally and Jackson have ups and downs. After their marriage, they travel in opposite directions, she rising to a major-label deal, he tail-spinning to a remainder bin of underperforming assets. Through it all, Jackson advises Ally, who hasn’t yet formed herself as a performer, to stay true to herself and never lose her authenticity. At the same time her record label sucks Ally in to reverse-engineer her hair and makeup and identity as a shiny, focus-grouped new product.
Jackson is experienced enough to see fame as an illusion to be thrown off or outgrown. Ally has the insight to try to help him end his self-loathing and binge drinking. Neither is as effective in rescuing the other as they hoped. As the music world prepares to show him the door, he chooses another exit route.
It’s a strong concept, told with empathy and humanity and compellingly acted in two challenging lead roles. Cooper’s work is his most emotionally significant since “Silver Linings Playbook,” where he created the perfect mix of uplift and pathos as Jennifer Lawrence’s unbalanced lover and like her was nominated for an Oscar (she won). Here, as before, Cooper is generous enough to make room for his co-star and secure enough to know when it’s not his turn. His musicianship is carefully limited — we don’t see his hands much on the guitar or piano — but his vocal work, recorded live, triggers is-that-really-him disbelief. He’s endlessly watchable without being a showboat.
As for Gaga, a gifted shape-shifter with impressive screen chemistry, I dare you not to fall under her spell. She is one of the few American stage idols who is also clearly cut out to be a movie star. Her function here is not to provide five or 10 minutes of “Lady Gaga” theatricality for her fans, but to create a vibrant three-dimensional character. She does so in ways guaranteed to surprise those who would underestimate her.
The duo share an excellent, realistic dynamic. Neither delivers actorish moments angling for awards and prestige. That is actually the best way to win the accolades, and “A Star Is Born” will likely bring Oscar nominations for both of its leads. It’s rough, frayed storytelling, but movies that are truly ambitious don’t have to be impeccably good to be impressive.
A Star Is Born
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse.