Content warning: This article discusses alcohol abuse, drug abuse and suicide.
In a scene from “A Star Is Born,” Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) invites love interest and up-and-coming singer-songwriter Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) on stage at a concert to perform “Shallow,” a song Ally had just begun writing. It is at this moment that both Cooper and Gaga make their case to audiences that this third remake of the original 1937 film is the most authentic to date. “A Star Is Born” showcases some of the best chemistry, characterization and music in a film this year.
“A Star Is Born” follows country rock musician Jackson, an alcoholic and drug addict who somehow still manages to shine under a spotlight. Jackson finds love in Ally, whose tough personality and thunderous voice spark a complicated love story. The two meet by chance, fall in love and marry. Soon, they find themselves at odds as Ally’s career continues to evolve while Jackson’s wilts.
The film flows rather well, with its original songs often serving as quick breaks in a rather complicated and heavy plot. There are moments of pure hilarity — the drag bar sequence where Jackson meets Ally features some fan-favorite drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009–), including Willam Belli and Shangela. There are also heart-wrenching scenes, like those depicting the relationship between Jackson and his much older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott).
In the beginning, “A Star Is Born” plays with too much exposition of Jackson’s backstory and Ally’s crowded home life. It is a lot of information to handle, but the film does not spend too much time in these spaces; it rarely revisits Ally’s family and home again. Once the two characters truly connect and begin performing together, “A Star Is Born” combines incredible music with perfect costar chemistry before taking viewers on an emotionally tumultuous ride.
Ally’s rise to stardom, featuring a stereotypically difficult manager (Rafi Gavron) and some so-bad-it-is-good pop music, plays out alongside Jackson’s spiral into further abuse. Cooper owns his character’s freefall, delivering a performance that can only be described as award-worthy, especially coupled with the fact that this movie is also Cooper’s directorial debut. As for Gaga, she fills the role well. In a way, Ally seems to represent a younger Gaga — her nose problem, creative differences with her manager and losing a lover on her rise to success. With these personal experiences, Gaga inhabits Ally in a genuine way, grounding her in one of the most honest performances of the year. She dominates the screen in almost every scene, giving seasoned actor Cooper a run for his money. In many ways, Gaga is in complete control of “A Star Is Born.”
It is Gaga and Cooper’s music that showcases their story better than the dialogue. Some songs, like “Shallow” and “I Don’t Know What Love Is,” are rich duets between the two. Others, like “Diggin’ My Grave” and “Alibi,” have more groove. Inarguably, the showstoppers are Gaga’s long list of solos, from highlight “Always Remember Us This Way” and the absolutely heart-wrecking “I’ll Never Love Again.” Even some of Gaga’s pop songs, meant to be cringeworthy and repetitive, are actually quite fun — a reminder that Gaga can make anything sound good.
Much of Gaga’s musical performance is reminiscent of her latest album “Joanne” (2016) and her Grammy Award-winning Tony Bennett jazz duet album “Cheek to Cheek” (2014). At the film’s most country-rock, Gaga may sound as though she is at home, but it is not Gaga — it is Gaga in character, giving audiences a purely fantastic performance. Her rich, vibrant voice fills scenes, accompanied by Cooper’s scratchy-yet-smooth baritone. Cooper reportedly transformed his voice for the role, which he said hurt his esophagus for the first few months of shooting. Jackson sounds far from the Cooper audiences are familiar with — perhaps that is what makes his performance so shocking and interesting.
While the film’s soundtrack may drive the plot forward, Ally and Jackson’s relationship is its focus. At times, their connection is so strong and real, it seems almost rude to interrupt their intimacy. Even when the two are performing on a large stage in front of thousands of people, it really is just the two of them finding themselves in each other. At other times, their fights over Jackson’s substance abuse become volatile and toxic, making the scenes uncomfortable to watch.
Jackson’s spiral ends tragically: After some time at rehab and a scolding from Ally’s manager, Jackson commits suicide. He had previously attempted to do so as a child, but his father did not notice; an ongoing issue in the film was how Jackson seems to idolize his father, also an alcoholic. Jackson’s passing is the breaking point in “A Star Is Born,” leaving Ally damaged and alone.
The final song of the film is “I’ll Never Love Again,” a solo written by Jackson for Ally that she sings at his funeral. It is undoubtedly the defining song of “A Star Is Born.” Gaga’s expressive vocals and performance are a one-two punch, sticking in memory in long after the credits have rolled and the audience has stopped crying.
“A Star Is Born” is a big story. It is heavy with exposition, but Gaga and Cooper easily weave the film’s elements into an new and emotional remake. For Gaga, it feels like a personal story. For Cooper, this directorial debut is one for the books. With its music, genuine storytelling and authentic acting, “A Star Is Born” creates a true masterpiece. While Cooper’s direction and acting are the bones of the work, Gaga’s performance fleshes out the body, giving the film true life. These two stars, and their ireplaceable chemistry, make “A Star Is Born” one of the best films of the year.