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Review: The Disarming Beauty of "A Star Is Born"

Bradley Cooper's directorial debut starring Lady Gaga asks if two geniuses can be together without the presence of competition.
Kelley Dong
A Star Is Born, the latest remake of William A. Wellman's 1937 film, as well as Bradley Cooper's directorial debutstars Cooper as Jackson Maine, a rockstar hanging to life by a thread simultaneously led closer to rock bottom by alcoholism and drug addiction. One rough night in drunken stupor, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar and watches as Ally (Lady Gaga) performs an exuberant cover of Édith Piaf's "La vie en rose." Her heavily-made up face, veiled in red spotlight, distorts her unwanted features and overshadows a modest life as a restaurant server. Dusk approaches as the pair leaves together, ending up in a secluded parking lot. Seclusion causes the masks to come off, and at once the pair realize that they—singer-songwriters of preternatural talent, capable of conjuring hit records from thin air—are perfect for each other.
Their fates are thus locked together and sealed: Jackson—Jack to Ally—invites his new girlfriend on tour. The excursion introduces Ally to nationwide attention and the opportunity to become a star of her own. Like its predecessors, the structure of A Star is Born is that of two timelines moving in opposite directions, a literal crossfade: As Ally's blossoming career fades in, Jack's career fades out into oblivion. It has long been the conceit of the quasi-franchise to suggest that men like Jack are inclined to be jealous of women like Ally. Lady Gaga's 2008 music video for "Paparazzi" likewise shuffles the cards of this game, imagining the diva as a celebrity sabotaged, nearly killed by an attention-hungry lover. In this rendition of the familiar tune, fame functions as a double-edged sword that pierces something less ethereal than money, drugs, and sex, something like art. The questions, then, become far more speculative wonders: Can pure genius survive without compromise or surrender to fear? Can two geniuses, masters at the same craft, be together without the presence of competition?
Alongside screenplay co-writer Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Will Fetters (Remember Me), Cooper filters the philosophical ponderings swirling around Jack and Ally's lives through the elusive, slippery prism of gender. However, it is not Ally—whose blushing and gaping at celebrity life first suggests a two-dimensional trajectory—who must reckon with herself as a woman, but Jack who continually tries and fails to uncover an identity beyond the role that he plays as a man. His onstage tough guy persona—with a hat too big and a beard that barely hides his rosy cheeks—barely disappears in Ally's presence. But only in the company of each other, away from the clutches of the industry hierarchy where only one can win, can Jack and Ally earnestly try be with each other as equals. In their bathtub, Ally applies mascara and lipstick to Jack's face—a process to which she is accustomed, of putting on an appearance of womanhood. He beams at her and they embrace, briefly joined in spirit, their bodily difference erased by soapy water. Never fazed by the myth of her inferiority, Ally strides towards stardom with relative ease. Her output of pop songs resembles the chart-topping singles of Lady Gaga's early career, namely the hypnotic sensuality of "Just Dance" and "Lovegame." Jack—unable to retrieve confidence outside of his botched attempt to be a cowboy, and constantly fearful of losing his magic touch—shrinks more each day as Ally's face appears on billboards and JumboTrons, looming over him.
Because Bradley Cooper frames the bond between Jack and Ally as a sacred one, little attention is given to the details of their surroundings. Conversations seep from one space into another in a knot of J-cuts, with a swaying camera that swirls past all else that is not love. Hands touching and eyes meeting are filmed in slowed motion, but Ally's skyrocketing into fame is made up of far swifter sequences: Near instantly, a viral YouTube video of Jack and Ally's duet becomes a record deal; a song about tight jeans becomes a best-selling album; and a Best New Artist Grammy award becomes a world tour. Concerts begin and end within seconds. Like Terrence Malick's similarly elliptical Song to Song, performances are frequently fragmented, but songs are also repeated again and again, revitalizing to a stadium crowd but deadening to the singer, whose foremost concern is his—or her—divine purpose. In the midst of his downward spiral, Jack's suffering is linked to a dead father and mother of whom we know close to nothing, and an incurable case of tinnitus—perhaps an unnecessarily wretched origin story to an already-pitiable fellow. But the one consistent point made is that Jack may never feel at home, not with Ally nor in his own skin. And despite a constant reassurance that these sicknesses are not Jack's fault, his guilt and shame pave the path to self-destruction. So it is in its final seconds that A Star is Born succumbs to brutality, with the total end of one star and the birth of another.
A thread of vulnerable intimacies links the two lives together: tearful apologies, petty misunderstandings, smearing cake into each other's faces. But this is not a battle of the sexes as much as it is two separate fights for survival, clashing and hurting one another in the crossfire. And if A Star Is Born has any faults, it is that it drowns in an excess of this dizzying existential confusion, and plummets into an inescapable depression—a soul-purging encounter at every twist and turn. Bradley Cooper has constructed a broad bridge between life and death, art and capital, success and failure. But it is also a narrow one, so therefore, Jack and Ally can only cross this chasm alone, and must gamble whether or not they will meet again on the other side. The startling sincerity and disarming beauty of this stems from the film's earnest pursuit of a true self, beneath the singing and the posturing, and its hope that two true selves could persist together. The tragedy, it seems, is that this co-existence is attainable, but not without an unlearning of the world. Addition and subtraction, a necessary math to love.


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