Baby, I was born this way.
When it comes to filmmaking, art typically imitates reality. But every once in a while in genuinely special cases, reality imitates art. In A Star Is Born, I’m not sure which is imitating which, and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. The story follows an up-and-coming singer, portrayed here by pop artist Lady Gaga, who falls in love, is forced out of her comfort zone, starts performing live, hits the big time, fulfills all of her dreams, and ends up with… nothing. Even though she’s now a big-time singer, celebrity, and star, she ends the film feeling just as broken, helpless, and human as she did when the movie began. I can’t help but feel Lady Gaga is channeling some of her real-life experiences as she portrays her character. Perhaps she’s channeling every star’s experiences?
The singer’s name is Ally, and in A Star Is Born she meets a famous country artist named Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who is battling his own demons. The first shot we open on is him popping pills into his mouth before going on stage and playing to a crowd of loud, passionate fans. Later on, he jumps into his car, downs a bottle of vodka, and seems disappointed when he notices that it’s empty. He ventures his way into a nearby drag bar, where a passerby tells him that this might not be the place for him. “Does it serve alcohol?” Jackson remarks. “It’s my kinda place.”
It’s at this drag bar where Jackson meets Ally – and just like Jackson, our introduction to Ally sweeps us off of our feet. It was only a few minutes earlier when we saw her frustratingly taking out the trash at her second job as a waitress. To see her on stage now, singing “La Vie En Rose” in front of several cross-dressing attendants, was nothing short of breathtaking. I was reminded of when Edith Piaf sang the song herself in 1946 and found myself completely caught up in the moment. Judging from Jackson’s reactions, I can only reason that he was as starstruck by Ally’s performance as I was.
From there, their relationship grows, and so does our admiration for both of them. One of my biggest concerns going into this movie was how it might sensationalize the experience of stardom. So often do films hold celebrity figures high as larger-than-life superstars, forgetting that there’s a person behind the performance on stage. I haven’t seen the previous adaptations of A Star Is Born, but from my experiences watching other musicals such as Fame and Rock of Ages, I’m used to musicals patronizing the audience instead of simply being honest with them.
Thankfully, A Star Is Born doesn’t sanitize or exaggerate the celebrity experience. It actually does quite the opposite. One of the greatest things about this movie is that when Ally hits the big time and becomes a high-profile superstar, her personality doesn’t suddenly change into this vain, egotistical social maniac. In fact, she’s still very much the same awkward, uncomfortable, and innocently sweet girl she started as in the movie. The only difference now is that she’s singing in front of large crowds with colorful costumes, makeup, hairdos, and backup dancers instead of jeans and a T-shirt. It’s nice to see that type of humanism in a character, knowing that there’s still a person behind all of the bright lights, cameras, and photo shoots.
In that, Lady Gaga steals the show as Ally. I’ll admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of her. Her public antics such as the infamous meat dress have always screamed as attention-seeking to me, and her music video “Judas” was just straight-up reprehensible. Still, you can’t deny the talent Gaga possesses as an artist, and here I’m completely entranced by both her singing and acting abilities. Whenever she sings, she completely transports you to a different place – like you just woke up right in the middle of a concert experience. And yet she doesn’t hesitate in the more emotional moments either, expressing genuine affection, pride, vulnerability, and hurt in the moments where it really cuts you the deepest.
Oddly enough though, I don’t give her all the credit for her performance. I give half of it to her co-star and director Bradley Cooper. Cooper makes his writer and director debut with A Star Is Born, and after watching it, I’m desperately waiting for his follow-up. Not only does he guide Gaga through the emotional range she needs in order to make her character feel believable, but he’s just as impeccable in his own portrayal as Jackson Maine as well. This is a damaged, broken man we’re watching – a person who loves singing his life story to millions of adoring fans, but his story is one of guilt, pain, and regret. You sincerely pity this man and his situation, and you pray that he can lift himself out of it with the help of his love and partner in life. I applaud Cooper’s work here not just in his own performance, but for enhancing Gaga’s as well. If Lady Gaga is the center of the show, Cooper is the man behind it.
I thought long and hard about this movie, whether I found it to merely another entertaining musical drama or something deeper. I eventually found it to be especially profound when I realized just how human the movie felt. Its characters are not larger-than-life clichés, caricatures or satires, and it doesn’t aim for the empty sensationalism that can be entertaining for only so long. Out in the real world, another Ally and Jackson Maine are walking through life together. Their dreams are real. Their problems are real. And their love for each other is real. Yes, they hit some ugly, dark, and tragic patches along the way. But they grow stronger, and shine brighter, because of it.