A Star Is Born (2018)

There are SPOILERS for A Star Is Born in the following review.

The first few scenes in A Star Is Born are pleasant enough. Jack (Bradley Cooper, ahem, pitch perfect) performs with his band. Ally (Lady Gaga, more Liza than Judy, which is perfect for this film) performs for the alley. Liza, I mean, Ally performs for Jack et al in a drag club. They get in a bar fight. They get groceries. Ally sings for Jack in a parking lot. A meme is born. Ally holds her father’s household together. Ally and her friend catch a private jet to Arizona to stand backstage at Jack’s concert.

Whew! That looks like a lot when you write it all out like that. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel like a lot when you’re watching it. The movie moves along lightly. Cooper and Gaga have good chemistry. There are a couple of entertaining songs in there, and both musical sequences are shot well. The whole movie is shot very well. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique dials back the intensity he’s exhibited in his work with Darren Aronofsky in favor of a more subtle approach. The film is intimate without ever feeling claustrophobic. Libatique and editor Jay Cassidy, another real pro, seem to know just where the energy is in any moment, be it in the crowd, in the musicians, in the lights, or, most often, emanating from Lady Gaga. Through all these early scenes, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut hums along, like a Jon Favreau film – perfectly pleasant in every way if largely unremarkable.

Then Jack brings Ally out on stage to join him in an arrangement of the little song she sang for him in the parking lot the night before. “The Shallows” is probably bouncing around your brain whether you have seen the movie or not. The destined-to-win-best-song-at-the-Oscars power ballad begins innocently enough—much like this movie—with both Jack and Ally singing verses to each other. And each verse includes a little pre-chorus which includes the lyric “falling” prominently featured, and if you weren’t already thinking of the last truly great song to win the Oscar, “Falling Slowly” from Once, you are now.

And then the magic happens, and A Star Is Born becomes not just a pleasant enough movie but one of the best films of the year.

The chorus kicks in, and the camera stays on Lady Gaga, and she doesn’t so much sing the first line of the chorus as she does ignite into it. Ally, herself, is caught by surprise, You can see it in her face, and she lets the music and lyrics take her away. It’s the Big Bang. It’s conception. It’s Pentecost. She is filled with the song, a song she participated in writing but has never heard performed in this way. She is alive for the first time inside that song. And the movie, thankfully, doesn’t do anything during the next two hours to kill that magic, though I’m not sure it could if it wanted to, so powerful is that moment.

The belief that artists are alive in their art is the animating force of A Star Is Born. Rather than being driven by ambition for fame as in many other movies about artists (see La La Land), Jack and Ally are committed to their music because it is the only outlet for their distinct voices. Fame is a burden in A Star Is Born, an annoyance, a means to an end. Authenticity is what actually matters. Meme or not, it’s love that wants to have another look. It’s love that sees the beauty in the profile that is unique to only you. It’s love that hears the unique beauty in another’s voice and patiently coaxes it out on stage for the good of the world.

A Star Is Born plays with that idea throughout the film, from Ally’s initial belief that no one wants to hear what she has to say to Jack’s “stealing” of his brother’s voice, from Ally’s battle with her pop producer to Jack’s late-career malaise when he is passed over to perform a Roy Orbison song at the Grammys, perhaps because his star has faded or perhaps because the powers that be figure he’d be unwilling to mimic Orbison rather than singing in his own style, a guess that proves correct after he chooses to give the famous opening riff of “Pretty Woman” his own flair.

The conflict between an artist’s authentic identity and what the industry wants to make them to be is a conflict throughout the movie. Recall that “Ally” billboard – even though we see them taking headshots that feature her nose in profile, the one they choose for the billboard features her looking directly at the camera, hiding the size of her nose. A nose isn’t  voice, but it is an essential part of her essential identity. The industry obscures it. She lets them, because it helps her career. When she cancels her European tour to stay with Jack, she isn’t simply sacrificing for her man. She’s taking back control of her self.

Most poignantly, in the film’s final scene, Ally sings “I’ll Never Love Again,” a song Jack wrote for her at a memorial for Jack. She sings almost the entire song, but the film cuts at the very end to the past when Jack first played and sang the song for her. Jack finishes the song. Of course he does. He poured his heart into it authentically. Jack is still alive inside the song.

It’s a compelling idea, that artists live on in their work even after they die. There’s an eschatological dimension to it, a resurrective property. It is true that when artists are honest and vulnerable in their work it is as if they pour themselves into it. And when we interact with an artist’s work after they die, it is like we are interacting with part of them again. That is a reason to be honest and vulnerable in our work – it outlives us. We can’t control it once it’s out there. The best we can do is be true when we are making it.

But we needn’t be cowed by the prospect of our work/ourselves being out of our control once we put it out into the world. It is like us, but it is not us. It’s fixed. We continue on growing and maturing and changing. And I believe in life beyond this one, so even though my work will one day fade from all memory, physical and virtual, I will continue on. We are alive in our work, but we are not only alive in our work. We will love again and continue to become more loving and lovely beyond the end of time.