The first 60 minutes of A Star is Born are the best a 2018 release has to offer. It’s a perfect hour that won’t be topped. Not all good things last forever, and first-time writer-director Bradley Cooper loses some of the magic as his characters grapple with their respective rises and falls. But believe the hype; even if it’s just for half the movie, there’s genuine transcendence here.
Jackson Maine (Cooper) is your typical drunken rock star. After an impromptu bar pop-in, he meets Ally (Lady Gaga) and takes a borderline-creepy-but-earnest-enough interest in her. She gets famous after he brings her onstage to belt out one of her songs, but her rising stardom and his plateaued (at best) notoriety do not mesh well. Can Jackson face down his demons, or are the pressures of celebrity too much for two star-crossed lovers to overcome?
A Star is Born dips its toe into some interesting questions about fame and the older male/younger female dynamic. Cooper—as a writer, director, and actor—does an excellent job of having Jackson walk the fine line between “well-known musician using his position to prey on aspiring singer” and “sad old drunk who falls in love.” He’d obviously like to sleep with her, and her him, but it feels like a fortuitous last grasp for salvation as much as an attempt to seduce a lovely young lady. It’s also very wise to never introduce infidelity into the proceedings; we know that Jackson and Ally love each other, and only each other, but obviously that’s not always enough.
It’s a shame that, once Ally gets famous, Cooper and fellow writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters lean into “modernizing” the story. She’s got a gig on SNL! Jackson doesn’t approve of this newfangled pop music! Up until then, it had been a timeless tale of sorts; for whatever reason, Cooper decides to firmly place it in the late 2010s, which narrows and negates her struggles to the point of them feeling irrelevant. If Cooper and/or the writers think rock music is preferable and has more to say than pop music, well, me too. But that’s a bit of an antiquated, “old man yells at cloud” mindset and I wouldn’t shoehorn it into my movie so artlessly.
Fortunately, everything settles down for the finale. And Gaga uses the power of her amazing voice to send us home with a bang, taking a final scene that could’ve been trite and making it spectacular. Everyone is talking about Gaga’s performance, and rightly so; she’s believable, brilliant, and often chill-inducing. But Cooper himself does a solid job, mumbling notwithstanding; the moment where he reveals his admiration for older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) is the biggest non-Gaga tearjerker and the clip you’ll see on Oscar night.
The cast beyond the leads is a fun who’s who of beloved character actors. Dave Chappelle has nothing to do, unfortunately, but the aforementioned Elliott is going to cruise to a Best Supporting Actor nomination. And this is two movies now—the other being Blue Jasmine—where Andrew Dice Clay steals his every scene. I would watch a whole film about him and Lady Gaga puttering around the house, rambling about Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra with Steve the Drunk from Deadwood.
But again, it all comes back to Gaga. When Ally comes out and sings “Shallow” for the first time, letting that voice fly and becoming her true self for the first time, you will not be able to hold back tears. It’s beautiful and perfectly earned; there is zero shame in Cooper and company going the rest of the film without re-reaching those heights. Most never even touch them once.