The most recent version of A Star is Born is more emotional gauntlet than compelling story. It’s a two hour and sixteen minute wash of tragedy and melodrama: a melancholy experience that is visceral in the moment but collapses upon further thought. Bradley Cooper — who stars and directs — has captured the magic that existed in previous versions of this story, but in doing so also adapted the most problematic elements of a Star is Born.
A Star is Born (2018) is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. This version contrasts the waning popularity of rock star and alcoholic Jackson Maine with the rising fame of his girlfriend and eventually wife, Ally (Lady Gaga). Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) attempts to lead Jackson down a better path, but ultimately is replaced by Ally as Jackson’s caretaker.
For a film about music to succeed, the songs need to work, and in this case, they do — marvelously. It’s no surprise that Gaga’s “Shallow” is an indelible thrill, and Cooper’s moments on stage are equally compelling. “Maybe it’s Time” is an emotional delight that is effective every time it’s used. All of the songs reflect events happening in the film to an absurd degree, but A Star is Born (2018) isn’t trying to be subtle — every plot element is telegraphed a mile away — and that’s perfectly okay for a film that’s intended to be a digestible, mainstream tragedy.
The film succeeds almost solely on the merits of its impressive cast. Cooper captures Jackson’s fall from fame with empathy. Jackson is both confident and uncertain and Cooper conveys that split wonderfully: privately Jackson is tender and neurotic, but on stage he’s a charismatic powerhouse. Even Elliot, whose screen time is relatively little, still conveys a deep sadness that comes to a head in his final farewell to Jackson; if there’s any moment that’ll make you cry, it’s watching Elliot’s tear-stained face as he pulls away from his brother’s house for the last time. Gaga has the most energetic character to work with. Ally is witty and at times hilarious, at least for the first half of the film. As the focus shifts from Ally and Jackson’s relationship to Jackson’s struggle with addiction, Gaga is given less dynamic material to work with.
Despite Gaga’s performance, Ally is the least interesting character in A Star is Born (2018). She rarely stands up for herself and, for most of the movie, has no agency in her life; she’s tethered first to her father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), then then to Jackson and finally to her manager, Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron). Ally is bounced around between the three men in her life, defined by their wants, needs and expectations. She’s never afforded the opportunity to create her own identity (she doesn’t even have a last name until the final scene when she adopts Jackson’s). It’s strange that Ally — the titular star — isn’t the focus of the film. She’s a major player, but A Star is Born (2018) is about Jackson, about his career and his struggles.
By focusing on Jackson, Cooper had an opportunity to make a statement about alcoholism and suicide — Jackson reckons with both all his life. But rather than present relevant social issues and comment on them, Cooper tosses them into the movie without delving into their realities or consequences. Jackson is allowed to mistreat Ally, harm himself and ruin his career without anyone calling him to task. Actually that’s not entirely true; Rez pulls Jackson aside at one point and chastises him, telling him that his existence is harming Ally, telling him, in so many words, to kill himself to save his wife’s career. His subsequent suicide is treated as a tragedy, but also as a sacrifice: a heroic act that absolves him of a movie’s worth of bad behavior. It’s a disastrous, outdated and misguided move that is out of place with modern perspectives about mental health.
But for all the film’s triumphs — it’s emotional intensity, wonderful performances, and impressive score — A Star is Born (2018) is problematic to such a degree that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. Jackson’s relationship with Ally is founded on the former’s constant breaches of consent: he harasses her into drinking with him, touches her without her permission, and has his personal driver stalk her. These transgressions come to a head in one of the film’s most empowering and unfortunately unpleasant scenes. Jackson flies Ally to a concert and then at the last minute tells that he wants her to come on stage and sing a song she wrote. When she says “no” he turns around and walks away, intending to go through with his plan anyway. She’s clearly upset, nervous (naturally), and unwilling to go on stage, but she does anyway because she doesn’t really have a choice — that’s Ally’s introduction to the world. It’s at once triumphant and skeezy.
We’re meant to forgive Jackson’s behavior and say, “who cares, they’re in love” but that’s not good enough. Long past are the days where pursuit and persistence equal romance; Jackson Maine is creepy, end of conversation.
A Star is Born (2018) is wonderful and worrisome. It perpetuates problematic tropes without acknowledging the wider conversations surrounding mental illness and consent. But somehow, it’s still a good movie. It’s still tragic and funny and features myriad magical musical moments. It still elicits powerful emotions, which is more than I can say of most movies I’ve seen this year. Cooper’s directorial debut will forever exist in cultural purgatory; it’s a compelling romance that was released too late to be forgiven for its unsavory elements.