Early on in A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s update of the near-biblical diva origin story, reluctant songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga, heard of her?) asks rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper, borrowing co-star Sam Elliot's throaty growl) if it bothers him that his fans treat him like he’s not a real person. Its a question Maine never answers, and a question that lingers throughout the film: how much of yourself do you give away for fame, and what’s left at the end?
By now, you’ve heard that A Star is Born is a great movie, and it really, really is. The film is thoughtfully made, superbly acted, heartfelt and heartbreaking. Lady Gaga has never been more charming than she is as Ally, who many will assume is just a fictionalized version of Mother Monster herself. But the bedrock of Gaga’s mythos has always been how hard she worked to become a star, how much she coveted fame — it’s literally the title of her debut album — and how earnestly (and bloodily) she deconstructed the idea of what it is to be a pop star. But when we meet Ally, she’s a waitress who performs enchanting Edith Piaf covers at drag shows (look out for cameos from Shangela playing herself in a Monet X Change wig and Willam) who can’t stomach singing her own songs in front of people. Ally is so uninterested in fame that when she catches Maine’s eye, she mostly just wants him to leave her alone. But Ally is destined for greater things, and Gaga captures her journey to superstardom with an earnestness and innocence that's shocking for an icon whose career has been built around being a larger-than-life persona.
The real star of A Star is Born, however, is Bradley Cooper. Maine is a world-weary rockstar who can't reconcile his love of performing with his rabid alcoholism and advancing tinnitus. Cooper uses his powers as both an actor and director to bring Maine's point of view to life — the piercing tones of his failing hearing, the distorted haze of booze and pills he sees the world through. Cooper has never been more vulnerable or believable, and watching Maine's life fall apart as Ally ascends to superstardom will make even the toughest heart ache.
Cooper's film asks questions about fame it never quite answers. It places importance on authenticity, on having your own voice and staying true to who you are as an artist. The conflict between Jackson and Ally comes not only from his descent into addiction, but his at times cruel insistence that meaningful art cannot be commercially viable — an interesting opinion for an Oscar-bait film banking on the credibility of one fo the world's most prolific pop stars. It's when this tension arises that A Star is Born starts to lag a bit, but in a near-perfect film that's easy to overlook.
A Star is Born is, more than anything else, a love story, and Gaga and Cooper have an incredibly magnetic chemistry. Ally's innocent charm and raw talent is the life raft this damaged, drowning man needs. It's a testament to both actors ability that we believe in their love, and that makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch it fall apart. In a film filled with music, theirs is the kind of love the best love songs are written about — singular, overwhelming, a firebrand that blazes too bright before ultimately burning out.
And there are plenty of love songs in A Star is Born, written by an artist at the peak of her songwriting prowess. Music is not only what brings Jackson and Ally together, it's what holds together the film. "Shallow" is the standout track everyone assumes will wind up garnering an Oscar nod, but it's the more sober "Is That Alright" and the earth-shattering "I'll Never Love Again" that will have you crying into your popcorn. If you were hoping Gaga would have an "I Will Always Love You" moment — girl, she does.
A Star is Born isn't a revolutionary film — it doesn't do anything particularly unique, it doesn't reinvent the genre or usher in a new era of filmmaking. But it is a near-perfect movie, one that reminds us — if only for two hours — that great loves, like great songs, are immortal.