An old rock star (Bradley Cooper) tilts his hat down before walking out on stage. It’s hazy, the stagelights are blinding but all we can see clearly in the tracking shot is Jackson Maine’s hunched back. He’s crushed with the weight of something we’re not familiar with yet. Before going on stage to tell his story for the sea of listeners he hesitates, takes a step backstage and downs a drink, illuminating the reason for the weight he carries in his slouched shoulders. He’s a cliche of rock stardom, writing his own swan-song, completely comfortable with the slow poison of his suicide solution. He’s ashamed of it, refusing to make eye-contact with others and performing without looking at the crowd, instead opting for the brotherhood of an interlocking guitar solo. A fretboard won’t judge, and you can’t shove alcohol down your throat in the middle of a guitar solo. A guitar only ever asks to be played and Jackson Maine can at least answer that prayer, even if he’s already given up the ghost of his own life. A song is only a respite from his problems. When the crowd goes home and talks about how amazing Jackson Maine was that evening, he sits alone, letting a dwindling bottle of alcohol become his new audience, but that’s soon gone as well. He has to chase a new muse, but on this night, he finds more than alcohol.
Ally (Lady Gaga) is not a rock star. She blends into the surroundings at her job, forced to wear a uniform that betrays star power. Bathe yourself in the waters of conformity if you want to disappear. She’s a singer, but right now she’s a waitress. No amount of talent keeps her from the uncaring world of 8 hour shifts that denigrate employees to meddle around in trash before they get off work. When Ally leaves her job, to get to the gay bar she’s set to perform in that night she hums Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s a nice homage to the woman who made the 1954 version of this story shine, but it has added context when sung by someone wishing for a falling star. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an anthem of dream chasers and when Ally walks up the back-alley street and the title card fades in like prophecy “A STAR IS BORN”.
A Star is Born is a familiar story told four separate times, before Bradley Cooper’s instalment, over different generations of American filmmaking. Legendary director George Cukor made the only two exemplary versions before the newest one was released. Cukor’s earliest, What Price Hollywood? (1932), laid the groundwork for everyone who would follow. In these movies, one star fades out, as another fades in, a dissolve made into narrative. The most well-known example of this story comes with Cukor’s 1954 adaptation, which loosely reimagined What Price Hollywood?, but took the romantic angle from William A. Wellman’s, A Star is Born. Featuring greatest of all time calibre performances from both Judy Garland and James Mason the 1954 version is a tough act to follow. Cukor’s second verse of this story is the classic epic Hollywood tragedy with a lightning in a bottle moment from its stars and director, all of whom are at the very peak of their talents. It’s near impossible to top, but in A Star is Born (2018) Bradley Cooper comes close by insulating the romantic angle in a bubble which amplifies the tragedy that comes in fracturing a perfect world self-made between two people. But first Jackson needs a drink.
As if by fate Jackson stumbles into a gay bar. Quite the feat considering he is neither gay, nor plays the kind of music that’s celebrated in establishments such as the one he’s just walked into. He’s even greeted at the door with a “you sure you’re in the right place?”, but any bar is home if it has alcohol when you’re looking to get plastered. Jackson’s need to get drunk lets him become comfortable quickly among the queens, but he quickly gets sidetracked when he hears this girl sing. Nearly everyone has been lip-syncing or performing karaoke all night, but she’s different. The otherwise loud bar dips into a stone cold silence before she begins to wrap herself in the sensuality of her performance of “La Vie En Rose”. The girl that’s singing is Ally.
In these movies it is vital to deliver the “star-making” moment and Bradley Cooper’s version of this story arguably creates an entire film around this idea in the overwhelming awe Jackson has for Ally throughout. The moment where this is crystalized is Ally’s performance of “La Vie En Rose” which suits Gaga’s mid-range vocal abilities to perfection. Gaga, to her credit, completely controls the moment, making the song not just a performance of vocal ability but of how she moves her body. She manages to travel the floor and encompass nearly every square foot of the bar before she ends up in front of Jackson Maine. Bradley Cooper uses a close-up on Gaga to stand-in for Jackson’s own point of view reaction to making eye contact with Ally for the first time. This is not just a star making scene, but the moment where two people fall in love. His decision in form here foreshadows how the rest of their relationship would be shot. The moment they lock eyes and Ally’s face completely overwhelms the frame, while being lit in a deep scarlet red with just enough sea green to make the image lush, we know his love for her is real. It insulates the two in a bubble almost immediately and the tracking shot we saw earlier of Jackson, in its formal conceit, to create a stoic singular figure, falls away and shows this man willing to open up his world for another person. The camera makes space for her, and Jackson does too. Jackson’s blurry vision and failure to make eye contact goes away with Ally. He focuses on her. His eyes light up and show life for the first time and he’s pulled out of the sea and back onto land when in her presence. Jackson Maine looks at Ally in awe, not only for her talent, but for love.
Jackson meets Ally backstage and immediately there is something between the two characters. It’s a crowded room full of queens, but their eyes seem to follow each other. Even with everyone surrounding them they’re framed like the only two people in the world. Jackson is interrupted occasionally to sign a pair of fake breasts or take a picture with a starstruck fan, but his attention to her never wavers. Jackson is acting, as if in a focused trance, after Ally’s performance and Ally, not completely realizing it just yet, because, she too is somewhat starstruck, has been captivated by him the entire time. Despite her obvious interest Ally keeps a shield up. Folks in the music industry have always burned her in one way or another and she’s worried Jackson may be the same, but that changes later that evening when the two of them find their way into a cop bar. After another fan insists on getting a picture with Jackson, this time rudely, Ally punches him in the face, because he’s invading the space she and Jack have created for themselves that evening. Jack’s impressed, and Ally laughs it off, not knowing what got into her.
They travel to a grocery store at his insistence and he cares for her swollen hand, using diy medical techniques, like using duct tape and peas to keep her piano hand from further injury. Jackson and Ally sit in the grocery store parking lot and in a low-angle wide image they’re the only two in frame. The entire world is theirs in that moment. Everything belongs to them, and they can be as comfortable and vulnerable with one another as possible. They talk about childhood troubles, songwriting and cheetos. Ally is wearing Jack’s leather jacket so she doesn’t get cold, and after hearing about Jack’s childhood issues she writes a song on the spot that would become the grand centerpiece of the film, “Shallow”. The entire sequence in the grocery store and the parking lot drifts. The images take their time and these two characters slip into one another in that way people do when they’re having a perfect conversation. Everything is smooth and easy and trapped in time. Minor on the surface, but the sort of evening you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s the beauty of falling in love in the single image of Jackson and Ally’s warm isolation from the rest of the world. Their intimacy spreads beyond the scene, and outwards, like all the best love stories. In the back of our mind we know how this story ends, because we’ve seen this story before, but in this moment, everything is perfect, and you forget that this won’t last forever.
Following that parking lot scene Cooper does a lot formally to emphasize the shelter these two have in one another with grace-notes involving human touch. There are obvious ones like Ally applying makeup to Jackson’s face in a bubble bath while he holds her, and others that are subtle like Jackson running an index finger up Ally’s calf while they ride a motorcycle. All of this is to say that their relationship is sexy and tactile in nature, but it also goes to sure up how Cooper articulates his shot selection to keep a tone of the two of them against the world. Jackson is in love with Ally, because she’s a greatt artist, a better one than he is, and Cooper acknowledges this in just how much of the movie he spends staring at Ally in awe of her abilities, but also because she’s the first person he’s let into his world in ages. Despite all of this Jackson still drinks, even to Ally’s protests. Love isn’t enough and the bubble between the two of them fractures when Ally’s career begins to take off after her concert appearances with Jackson go viral. There’s a short scene between Jackson and Ally after she moves in with him where Jack thanks her for giving him a home. She asks him to clarify and he said “this place never felt much like one before you were here”. That home might as well be Jack’s life, and the tragedy of the movie is the perfect world they made with one another, by nature of their own relationship, slipped through their fingers before they even knew it was gone. Ally’s world expands with her stardom, but Jackson was comfortable where he was at in his life. Jack’s friend, George (Dave Chappelle), likens his life to a ship being at sea, “You set sail, you’re out there for a long time, chasing something, but you dock into port, and you find you kind of like it here. Years go by, and you forgot why you set sail in the first place, but you don’t mind, because you’re comfortable.”
Jackson and Ally get married. Ally makes a pop album.
Many have criticized the movie’s second-half for failing to give Ally an equal share of the narrative as Jackson, and while I think this is a fair point, I think this is exactly the point of what the film conveys. The camera sticks with Jackson, because he is in stasis, and he struggles with the loss of the world he and Ally had when it was just the two of them, so he drinks more and more. Ally’s story expands, like a star exploding, she’s on SNL, she’s nominated for Grammy’s and she gets giant billboards plastered all over the city adorned with her face. Ally needs more than Jackson, but she doesn’t want to lose Jackson either. The fissuring of their relationship comes at the cost of her expanding career and his inability to cope with the specific circumstances that come with being a woman in the music industry. Jackson wants her to sing, and tell her story, but that’s never enough for a woman. She has to know how to dance, she has to be attractive, and she has to cultivate a self-image, because the industry is functionally different for her than it is for him. He sees this as a tragedy, and while she isn’t entirely comfortable with pop star trappings, she still thinks it’s “fucking awesome” at the end of the day. This isn’t a question of rock music versus pop music in the larger scheme of things, because Ally always mentioned wanting to have “hits” and Jackson obviously never kept up with the world around him and saw how the industry changed since he broke out in the 90s.. Jackson can play rock music to the same crowds as he did in the 90s, because he has a built in audience, but Ally has to create her own image and narrative, and he struggles with that reality. He loses her to the pop machine. He’s selfish to some degree in wanting to keep her where she is, but he’s honest about it, and it does come from a place of love. To watch him struggle with the realities his relationship is now facing is harrowing, because we have the context for how these stories end. It’s like watching someone morph into a corpse in real time, and Cooper, to his credit, plays the downfall with just the right mixture of self-righteousness and vulnerability. Ally never loses her love for Jackson, but she constantly makes comprises for his sake, because she still wants to keep the world they fostered at the beginning of the film alive. She wants him to be on tour with her, and protect him from his own problems even if it comes at the expense of sponsorship, additional tour dates and freedom. She makes these sacrifices because Jack is her person, and she’s willing to do anything for him, even when she knows what’s broken cannot be fixed.
A Star is Born is a movie of love and the sacrifices you have to make when your life becomes entangled with another person. Love is not independent. There is no singular “you” when you’re in a relationship that really counts. You fold yourself into the person you love and become like one single entity. Their problems are yours and there isn’t a worse feeling than failing to solve the problems of the person you love. Ally’s story reduces in the second-half of the film, because she’s away working hard to become the artist she knows she can be, and when she’s home she sacrifices herself to help her troubled husband rise back above water. She is selfless, even to the point of breaking her own heart if it meant he could find peace. She gives everything, even when she knows it’s impossible. Jackson does too. You do that when you’re in love.